Patball is a non-contact competitive ball game, supposedly invented at Dulwich College, a public school South of the River Thames in London. However, the phantom sport has been seen in action in various locations around Oxford. Cherwell Sport has decided to look into patball as part of its inves- tigation into the more unusual sports that the university has to offer, and this week’s investigation has taken us to the street.
Otherwise known as ‘patters’, the game has cropped up in seemingly random locales in and around Oxford. No-one knows who first introduced the game into the university but this week has seen over seventy hours of game time racked up by a select group of players around central Oxford. According to one interviewee, the game is often played in the dead of night, when pedestrians are off the street, sharing an uncanny elusiveness with that of Brad Pitt’s 1999 epic movie, Fight Club.
The only equipment needed to play is a tennis ball, making it highly inclusive, something many sports throughout Oxford have sought to achieve. Similar to squash in nature, but with an open court, it is fast paced and at times dangerous. It also borrows from other sports such as Eton Fives, but the setting is what really makes it unique.
The rules appeared simple, but were precise and intricate upon inspection, most of them ‘gentlemanly’ by nature, and all respected by the players. With anything up to twelve players on court at once, the order is announced at the start of a match. The aim of the game is to hit the tennis ball with the palm of the hand into the floor before it bounces off the wall. It is then allowed to bounce again on the ground before the next player in the order must return it. When a mistake is made, the player gets a letter, and a player is out when they acquire PAT. Obstruction seemed heavily frowned upon by some, perhaps more veteran players, but your Cherwell reporter managed to integrate easily into the game, which was fairly simple to pick up. “You can actually get good really quick”, commented one player. Other rules, such as ‘one and twos’ discourage collaboration amongst players to knock another player out: you cannot set up the next player for a deliberately easy shot.
The serve is supposed to be carried out in good will, allowing the game to flow, and to encourage lengthy rallies. As with any form of competition, tempers occasionally boiled over, with aggression being displayed in some moments. “The game offers a great way for us to get out of the library, but sometimes distracts us for hours on end, and is also played in the middle of the night”.
After playing for around an hour on the Ship Street court, the range of playing styles was demonstrated by a group varying in body shape and size. ‘Baseline players’ are characterised by their low and hard slinging motion of the ball, and ‘soft touchers’ are known for their deft close play.
The range of shots available was also surprisingly high, with the usage of the palm and the back of the hand both allowed. The ‘hook’ is characterised by a long lurching sweep under the eyes to create the biggest angle sending the next player in the queue as far away as possible. The dabber, performed mainly by soft touchers, was often used to trick opponents, much like a drop shot in badminton. The players that I met on the Ship Street and Market Street courts have described the sport as both addictive and ‘rogue’.
At one point during my investigation, a medium size crowd assembled to watch the players do their thing, with one member of the crowd asking to join in. Although an obstruction for some pedes- trians and bikes, most people were happy to allow the point to be played before passing, emphasising the polite nature of the game. Having only recently erupted onto the Ox- ford streets, the group I played with asked to remain anonymous, but with hopes of expanding the sport, particularly in terms of court locations, they provided an email ad- dress: email@example.com, which ‘anyone interested’ can contact. The official con- stitution of Oxford Patball is currently being drawn.