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Aug 00


I saw a few school kids playing that long forgotten game (long forgotten to me, at least) of handball the other day. Not the Olympic sport, handball, but the handball where you took a tennis ball, designated a crack in the pavement as the line and that was all you needed for a game. I used to play that game all the time as it was, pretty much, a daily ritual back in primary school. It was a part of primary school life for everyone. In fact, the entire asphalt area of the playground was marked out with handball courts. They were four-square courts, marked out in a fading yellow paint.

By the time I made it there in the morning, all the courts would already be filled, and it was just a matter of finding a game with friends in it. Same deal for most recesses and lunch (when we weren’t playing bullrush, brandings or some other game). During the hot Summer days, you could easily build up a sweat playing in the sun. Yet, under the glaring sun, there’d be queues standing alongside courts of people waiting for their turn to play. A generation of kids who’d no doubt develop skin cancer in the days when the phrase “no hat no play” was not dreamt up yet.  There were kids darting around the grounds chasing the ball that was hit too hard. The constant patter of bouncing tennis balls. The occasional chant of “Out! Out! Out! Out!” from those queued up to a player who’s decided to chuck a McEnroe and dispute a line call (try getting the crowd to do that at Wimbledon!). Sometimes the court has a wall bordering it (or roof above, even), and if so, was usually employed to rebound the ball off.

For those who have no idea what I’m on about, let me take a moment to describe the game of handball. In a simple two player game, you have a rectangular court with a line across the centre. Basically you hit the ball so that it bounces once in your half of the rectangle, and once in your opponent’s half (although the opponent can hit your ball on the full on return). Anything landing outside the rectangle is out, of course. Asides from hitting the ball out of play, the other two ways to lose a point was to hit a full (where the ball crosses the line without bouncing in your half of the court first) and doubles (ball bouncing twice in your half of the court before crossing). The person who served the ball was in Kings, the serving square, and the other guy would be in Dunce. Whoever won the point would move (or stay) in Kings. If there were more than two players and the person in dunce lost, they would exit and someone new would take their place. That’s all there was to it, basically.

One of the interesting things about handball was the terminology used to describe the various aspects of the game. Asides from the usual fulls and doubles, you had a variety of other terms. “Slogs” were used to refer to balls hit low and hard. Then there were “wogs” (back then, no one knew it was a racist term. I have no idea who would have come up with such a term in the first place) where you would grab the ball in the air, give your wrist a quick twist in a downwards motion and release the ball. Sounds strange, was strange. It often rendered the ball virtually unplayable. Wogs were normally used to take the pace out of the ball and drop it close to the line (it was mainly employed when you were at the line and your opponent was backcourt). However, to return a wog successfully was something worthy enough to boast about. In many games it was not allowed (sort of a “house rule” that changed depending on who was “in charge” of the game – that is, whoever owned the tennis ball). “Reflexes” was generally agreed to be a stupid rule and consequentially was often banned in game play. It allowed you to catch the ball and basically chuck it across the court at a ludicrous speed. I remember having a game where reflexes were allowed. Points lasted two hits – the serve, followed by the unreturnable reflex. Whoever was in King never lasted more than one game, maybe two, if the person in Dunce was uncoordinated enough to not catch the ball (resulting in the thorough bagging out of that person). Most games disallowed wogs and reflexes, instead opting for slogs, which required skill to hit as low and fast as possible, while aiming it cross court.

N.O’s (said, “en-ohs”) were called out if something interrupted game play (an errant ball bouncing through your court in the middle of a game, for instance) and the point would be restarted. If the ball hit a line, “lines” was called and the point restarted, with the server serving the ball from the centre line. Rolls was another quirky rule. Sometimes allowed, sometimes not, it referred to what should happen if the ball starts rolling. If disallowed, the point must be replayed. If allowed, play continued. A side-effect of this was lots of skinned hands as we often dipped them too low thus scraping them along the concrete as we attempted to belt the ball as hard as possible across the court floor.

To make matters more complex, there were dialects of handball terms used by people playing around the different parts of Sydney. In country-town Camden, N.Os were not heard of. Interference, or “obs” (short for obstruction) was called out instead. “Wogs” were unheard of, and an explanation of what they were only brought a look of distaste (not a sentence to be taken out of context! I have good friends who are Greek.) Slogs were called grasscutters.

There were various modes of play, too. Apart from the usual singles and doubles, you had 4, or even 9 players in a square configuration. There was also games for three players and up where the court consisted of squares all in a line – such that to serve from Kings to Dunce you had to bounce the ball a fair distance and over the intermediate squares. With these games of more than two people, extra rules existed. The “X-King” rule stated that if someone recently was ousted as King (thereby becoming Dunce), the new King had to serve to the old King. And if you forgot to do so, too bad, your short reign was over. To complicate matters, players can call out “service” before the King serves. If you were the first to call out “service”, the King had to serve to you. However, “X-King” overrode the “service” rule.

There was also this rather contentious “struck” rule that everyone generally hated and disallowed. If the ball hit by your opponent landed out, but you made an action to hit the ball (even though you may have not made any contact with the ball), you were out. This caused plenty of disputes. “You struck!” “Did not!” “Did too!” Etcetera.

I must’ve spent hundreds of hours playing that game, which I why I still remember all the vagarities of it. You’d get to know the calibre of everyone else in the grade… who was lethal with the ball, and who just plain sucked – sometimes so badly that it just wasn’t fun to play with them.

In early primary school, no one is particularly coordinated. This changes as the years go by, though, and soon skill levels gradually improve as your motor coordination develops. Shots are added to your repertoire… people learnt how to put spin on the ball, play with their left hand (or right, if left handed) and naturally, the ever popular hitting the ball between your legs backwards. Then there was the ability to hit a slog such that the ball was hit low enough so it rolled across the ground at some scorching pace. Of course, the pinnacle of skill was to be able to successfully return slogs. It might all sound elementary, but to a young kid who hasn’t hit his/her teens, it was intricate. And at that age, all girls pretty much sucked at the game. No, it’s true.

High school came and handball was still played, but by then people had discovered the fun of kicking balls across the quadrangle (and breaking classroom windows), touch footy on the ovals and also dumping smaller kids head-first into rubbish bins. Handball took a backseat. The last time I played was a couple years ago. It felt like learning a new game. A long forgotten sensation, something foreign to me. Yet, I remember how it all felt natural so long ago… Until a few days ago I had all but forgotten about handball even though it occupied a significant amount of playground time about a decade ago.

One thing I have never known is that if handball was a purely Australian game, or was it known elsewhere in the world (or even outside of Sydney)? What other rules existed? I’d be interested to hear if any of you non-Aussies have, or haven’t, heard of it.