Not all balls are created equal, but tennis balls are king, columnist Joe Bennett muses after coming across a ball stuck in a gutter.
Caught in the rain walking home, head down, neck wet, the front of my trousers drenched to chill the skin of my thighs, and there in the gutter was a blockage of twigs and leaves
What is it about balls? Some are better than others, but all balls are lovely. A ball is a globe, a sphere, the most perfect of shapes, the shape of a drop of water, the shape of the earth we stand on, the shape of the sun that runs things, the self-forming, cornerless, straight-lineless shape that seems somehow to be at the heart of the natural world. I cannot tell you why. Nor, I suspect, can physicists, but there’s a beauty in its simple symmetry.
A new cricket ball’s a fine thing, with the cherry-red hardness of polished leather and the stitched seam proud enough to cut flesh. And an old one is a fine thing too, the seam worn flat, the leather scuffed and softened by battery and abrasion. But a cricket ball is too specific to cricket and too hard to be kind. It breaks windows and fingers. And it doesn’t bounce as a child wants.
For bounce, the anti-gravity that gratifies the child in us, a golf ball’s good. Its heart of wound elastic fizzes with responsiveness. But it too is a window-breaker. In size and density, it is too much like a stone to be a plaything in a fragile world.
A football’s a simple leather or polyurethane bladder, as befits the simplest and most popular of sports. But a football won’t fit in a pocket and also, in the end, we are not creatures of the foot. We are our hands. We feel and shape the world with hands, we fight and stroke and seize with hands. Hands, not feet, are our interface with things.
A basketball’s a handy thing and it bounces as any child could wish, but it too exceeds the capacity of any pocket yet sewn. There is just too much of a basketball. It encases too much air.
You’ve sensed where I am going. I have skirted the obvious. The best of all balls, self-evidently, no-argument, hands-down, tout court, indisputably, by all manner of means, beyond peradventure, is a tennis ball.
Tennis itself eluded me – it needed too much private real estate, was a game of girls in muslin and gin on the lawn – but tennis balls have littered my life. As kids we played football with tennis balls, cricket with tennis balls, rugby with tennis balls, palm tennis with tennis balls. We waged wars with tennis balls and we biffed them onto the roof of the science block and then fought to be the one to catch them when they came back down.
We even played tag with a tennis ball; it acted as the hurlable vector of ‘it’ (and if you don’t understand that sentence you had a deprived childhood and I cannot help you. I’m sorry).
A tennis ball fits any human hand. It bounces well. It throws well, has the mass to go a distance. Yet it leaves all but the feeblest windows intact. And if biffed at an enemy it stings him without maiming.
I don’t remember ever buying a tennis ball. There were just there, lying around my boyhood, to be picked up. I carried one in the pocket of my school jacket. It was a plaything and a comfort to handle. I could do tricks with it, spin it along a blackboard ledge, make it bite and turn, even on a floor of school linoleum.
It’s just two halves of rubber, joined by some industrial process, wrapped round with figure eights of fuzzy stuff and sent out into the world to please its children. And its adults. And its dogs. I knew a dog who’d worn his teeth to nubs on tennis balls, begging for them to be thrown, chasing them with limitless glee, pouncing to make the kill, chewing and mauling, then bringing them back to do it all again.
And of course, in the rain this afternoon, it was a tennis ball that was lodged in the blockage in the gutter, a battered, almost furless tennis ball, a ball that had lived a life. And I who have lived a life as well bent down in the rain and, with cold hands, I picked it up and cradled it and felt it fit my palm, and I tossed it and spun it and caught it and flicked it and the years fell away and I grinned in the rain and felt good.