A very weird and long cricket season is almost over. Almost over in that the mostly unheralded Sheffield Shield season approaches its conclusion. As it does so nearly unnoticed, the notably fake footy that is the AFL NAB Challenge, whatever that means, is roaring through meaninglessly and under great observation.
The former is a competition with much prestige and history in this sports mad country, the latter has no ladder, no finals, no winner, and almost no purpose. That, however, is the nature of things in this country. Unless it is the pointlessly vacuous Big Bash League or the nationally important above everything else The Ashes, cricket occupies a territory that could be described as a kind of unsatisfied tolerance by the general population.
People have it on, they are generally interested in selection and the outcome, but seem, on the whole, to be fairly unhappy with the product. Genuine cricket fans will usually be happy with the Test summer, will follow the One Day matches, but will turn their noses up at the shortest form in its domestic setting. The two types of fans have opposing tastes.
This cricket summer has tested everyone. With three short, ordinary Test series with a couple of weird One Day tournaments and a handful of T20s, the cricket has seemed to linger around like the tiny sticky sparkles from the big packet your kids burst and spread throughout your house. If you haven’t experienced that, they definitely linger. Boy, do they linger.
My manager at work, Gary, a lifelong Tigers fan went to get tickets to the Tigers v Hawks NAB Challenge game at Beaconsfield in what I think is still country Victoria. Sold out. Yes, it’s only just over 6,000 people, but it is still a practice game three and a half weeks from the start of anything with any meaning. It is still a game that can be watched on TV or via club websites. People are super keen for the footy, even if the footy has no meaning and weird rules, selections and locations.
If you got my rather obvious clue earlier, you know that I too am a Tiger. I found myself watching the first NAB Whatever match against Freo being annoyed at the incredibly inexperienced side that got smashed by the full strength Dockers. The next week, I sat happily watching my side destroy an undermanned Hawks. In each situation it was almost impossible to get a read on what any of it meant. Each time I was looking for something, the first time I didn’t get it, the next time I did. Interestingly, it wasn’t the win.
For me, that particular direction is forward, and further to that, with speed. My wife is not a great footy on TV person. I certainly am. As such, I have to be selective in which games I watch throughout the year. I don’t waste games on teams I don’t find attractive or interesting. I watch the Dogs because of the talent and style, in 2014 I watched Port because of their attacking running, and I haven’t watched Sydney in years. I used to like the Dees because of Jeremy Howe’s outrageous marking, even though they were rubbish, but gave up on wasting viewing time on them since Paul Roos implemented his god-awful game-style and ruined it.
Each team has, in the internal crunching of the gears in my concussion addled brain, an instinctive viewability rating. For the past two seasons, my own side has not been watchable. They have played with a frustrating, slow kicking style that is bothersome in that it is part of the problem facing footy today. Teams being coached negatively to the detriment of the fan. If I didn’t barrack for the Tigers, I wouldn’t have bothered watching them.
From what I saw on Saturday afternoon, I am tentatively hopeful that my side will provide me with some kind of flair – with something to watch besides my colours. I would be happy with that, as I would be proud of my side if it dared to win, and did not fear a loss. After all, where has the chippy chippy, stop-start style gotten us? If you can’t be happy with the result (and 17 out of 18 teams won’t be), then you should at least be content with the intent. Besides, the aesthetic of the game is important to the future of the game.
So, what the hell is the point of all this? In regards to the NAB Challenge, I think for us fans it is to try to get a glimpse of what might be to come, whether it be game style for those considering themselves to be potential contenders, or a view of young talent on the list for those that don’t have great aspirations as far as their side’s chances in the season proper go. For the clubs, it would seem that they are keen to get through unscathed injury-wise, and to put some things in motion that they’ve been working on without giving too much away.
Perhaps it just turns out that people just like watching blokes play footy, and they don’t necessarily need genuine competition to get their fix. After a difficult cricket season, this is probably particularly the case right now. For those of us that thrive off something more meaningful, the Sheffield Shield season is, after all my above negativity, about to offer up an interesting Final. I hope the Vics can bring it home again.
It’s not on Foxtel and no-one is really talking about it, but it is prestigious, will be hard earned, hard fought, and can be streamed online. Not that you will – the fake footy will be finished and the real footy will be on.