Being a man and English it’s fair to say that netball hasn’t really crossed my path particularly often. I remember we played it at school in mixed form a couple of times – enough for me to know what the letters C, GK, GD, WA, WD, GS and GA mean – and in our final year of senior school me and a (male) friend picked it for a term as we knew no-one would particularly mind if we showed up. I got to play ‘C’ a couple of times and enjoyed it but mostly didn’t turn up. And that, until this weekend, was pretty much that. Like it’s more boisterous half-cousin basketball it was not something I ‘got’ and given that I spend far too much of my life already engrossed by teams sports from Saskatchewan (Canadian football) to Geelong (aussie rules) I didn’t feel anything was missing. That has now changed and in significant part I blame Jo Harten.
A Friday evening with nothing to do and not much on the TV and something called the “World Netball Series” catches my eye. Oh go on. This is, apparently, Fast Net netball in which there are four short quarters, a power quarter with double scores and the opportunity for “2 pointers” for shots from outside the D. I catch England playing New Zealand in the round-robin group stage and it’s a bloody close game until the final seconds of the power play quarter when quick repeated double 2 pointers by the Silver Ferns (netball being somewhat big in New Zealand the national side has a name) puts them out of sight. Something odd has happened whilst I’ve been watching. My hand has not been drawn to the remote; I am getting more frustrated by ‘our’ ability to lose possession and miss what look like straightforward shots and, crucially, I am hopeing ‘we’ make it to the semi finals so we can have another crack at New Zealand. I even stay with the programme and watch Fiji lose out to South Africa – feeling sorry for the Fijians who would have taken the match with better finishing.
What changed was having a team to support but also the structure of the game which made it compelling. Basketball bores more because it has too many points and in my opinion you might as well just play the final ten seconds and have done with it. Netball when I’ve seen it before has too often dragged on long after the result seemed settled. Having now seen the Fast Net version and been impressed I’ll give the long form a go and expect scales to drop from my eyes. Above all, I was amazed at how fluid it seemed compared to the stop start I remember although I definitely didn’t understand all of the penalties.
But now, back to Jo Harten. England got to the semi final and then edged past Australia to set up a rematch with the Kiwis. On twitter a search for #WNS caught a few New Zealanders waking up especially to catch the final – and they will stage the World Netball Series’ next three iterations – and they would have been happy enough with the first half as the Silver Ferns played a composed game and would have been a fair way ahead but for Ms Harten sinking two two-pointers, each at the death of the quarter. Even on the Sky+ recording I cheered. Then came the power play – it seems to be standard for all teams to take the double points in the third quarter and so it was again here only this time England ran riot with the excitement of the commentators and the arena matching the exclamations on twitter and my own sofa-based cries. England didn’t blink in the last and they emerged victorious.
Having now discovered netball I’m at something of a loss what to do next. I’d feel a bit like a grubby uncle waltzing in to watch a match firsthand so I’ll have to stick with Sky-based viewings. I need to find a team whose scores I can check (speaking of: I can’t find a single thing about England’s title in this morning’s press) and whose fortunes can join those of the Broncos, the Cubs, the Huskers and the rest in causing me occasional anguish and delight. For now though, I can smile broadly and watch as a team drowns in tickertape (with thanks to youtube):