IT is a point in the patriotic creed of all right-minded Britons that the British nation are the greatest of all game-players, and that cricket, the national pastime, is the greatest of all games. If now and again the patriotic articles of faith receive a shaking—as from the visit of a very powerful Australian eleven or an " All Black" fifteen of the New Zealanders—the Briton can still find balm for his wounded soul in the reflection that these, his conquerors, are but " Greater Britons" after all ; they are at all events his own kith and kin, of the masterful Anglo-Saxon race.
At the present moment, however, there is being exhibited at Olympia a game which, in certain of its features and in its best developments, is, in the opinion of some even of British game-players who are most qualified to judge, the best game in the world. The comparison between the merits of games is, admittedly, exceedingly hard to make. It is a difficulty which received perhaps its most notorious illustration when a Cabinet Minister of the late Government (it is true that it was previous to his acceptance of a position from which he spoke with responsibility) startled a thinking world by a dissertation on the portentous text : " Is golf a first-class game ? " That such a question should be even asked ie testimony in itself to the extreme difficulty of finding a standard, a test, by which the relative merits of games are to rise or falL But by every one of the standards which the author of that disserta- tion proposed, this game of "Pelota-Basque," as it is some- times called, which is being exhibited at Olympia, would seem to conform to the definition, if it were capable of being defined, of first-class. It is a game which in its origin is peculiar to the Basque provinces, and is played outside them only in such places as the Basques have reached. Possibly it is more appreciated in some parts of South America than in its native Bisca.yan home, for many of the finest pelota players go out to South America, where they give exhibitions of the game for money, generally returning, when their game-playing days are done, with a sum that is of much value in smartening up the old Basque homestead. Pelota means simply " ball," and under this generic name (of "ball-game," as we might translate it) several different developments are grouped. There are two kinds of games played in a tennis-court, of which one, named trinquet, which used to be played over the tennis-net, has been practically given up ; but the other, under the name of biaid--virtually hand-fives against the back wall of the court—is still played every Sunday afternoon and on many weekdays in every Basque village, both on the French and Spanish side of the Pyrenees, that has a tennis-court. In open-air uncovered courts two chief varieties of game, still under the name pelota, are also played. These are, first, rebot, now the most common form of the game all over the Basque country ; and, secondly, pelota, specifically so called, or the long game, which is now only played in the Spanish Basque province of Guipuzcoa, and is by far the finest and most interesting of all the forms. Rebot requires but one wall—the front one— and the court is comparatively short. Again, it is practically fives, without side walls or back wall to the court. Some- times it is played a main, nue, as hand-fives ; sometimes a chistera,—that is to say, with the basket attached to the glove on the hand, which is the characteristic weapon of pelota. In all cases the ball is somewhat like, in size, weight, and make, a tennis-ball (not, it is hardly needful to say, a lawn-tennis ball), but it is heavier, perhaps a little bigger, as a rule,—almost as big as a base-ball. There is a modification of the chistera, in form of a very thick blade of leather, a kind of prolongation of a leathern glove, giving a broad surface for striking the ball. The chistcra is most
like, of anything familiar to us, the wicker guard placed on a dogcart's wheel to keep a lady's dress from the mud as she gets in. To receive the ball in this narrow niche must require great accuracy of eye. As the ball is propelled back from the lower extremity of the chistera, the length of the implement serves as a lever, giving great power of propulsion, exactly on the principle of the throwing-stick for the missile spear. In rebot, only the players at the back of the court wear the chistera. Nearer the wall the returns come too quickly for its use. It is in the long game that its use and purpose are seen to perfection, and one of the strokes in this game, the taking of the service, is among the finest exhibitions of athletic achievement that any game can show. The service is made by the server, or butteur, bouncing the ball on a little table, or butte, set up for the purpose near the front wall of the court (the back wall is some hundred and fifty yards away, and there are no side walls), and banging it with the bare hand against the service wall. The taker of the serve, the refouleur, takes the ball in his chistera, and making but one harmonious movement of the whole business, turns him- self about and swings the ball away back to the back wall of the court. For herein the game differs from anything else that we have seen. Once the serve is made, the front wall is no longer the object of interest. There is a line drawn on the ground at right angles across the middle of the court, and this line now does all the duty of the net in tennis. The game, after beginning like racquets, with a serve against a front wall, converts itself at once into tennis ; only that the ball is still in play if it return across the line at the first bound as well as at the full pitch. The taker of the serve then, executing this striking volte-face, sends away the ball towards the back wall, where one of the opposing side awaits it; and this man, in taking it, performs a tour de force that is no less wonderful to a British eye. For he has none of our appreciation of the beautiful simplicity of the long hop ; he does not wait for the ball to pitch. In his narrow chistera he receives it at the full volley, never missing, hurling it back towards •the front wall again. So the game goes on, to the applause of the people sitting in tiers all along the court's sides, and the music of a blaring band and the bright sun of the Pyrenean blue-skied land, and the cantara, or marker, singing out the score, in Basque, with a melodious voice as each point is scored. It is a game demanding great staying-power, as well as great activity of limb and quickness of eye, on the part of the players, of whom there are commonly five aside.
Must not this in all respects be a first-class game? Well, with all due consideration to the feelings of those who have come as our present guests to play it, we have a doubt. It is a doubt that we are obliged to entertain, not of this great national game of the Basques only, but also of some of the games which we, as a nation, consider great. It seems to be inevitable with many of our games, that as they become more scientific—in a sense more first-class—it becomes the more difficult, or impossible, for them to remain popular games of the people. It is hardly to be said of a game that it is first- class unless people play it. Do people—the populace—play this game, pelota ? Do they play cricket of the first-class character? Do they play the baseball of America P We have to answer "No" in every instance. And the evil point is that it is the answer which befits the more modern developments of these games. In their origin they were popular : the people played them; of that there is no doubt. They have become in their scientific evolution no longer popular: they are spectacular. They are not greatly better, as a means of giving health and exercise, as well as interested amusement, than the ancient circus or the modern bull-fight. The more a game or a pastime falls or rises into the condition in which the few only take an active part in it and the many are but spectators, so much the more must it miss, as we cannot but think, the right reason of its'existence and its vogue. When a game falls into the spectacular condition, it is time that it should be reformed, or that we should find a substitute. Whatever we are to say of golf, whether we are to regard it with the not wholly charitable suspicion of the ex-Cabinet Minister and cricketer mentioned already, or whether we shall deem it an insidious foe of. even greater games—if greater there are—we still must grant it at least this merit, that the golfer plays it. It is among its merits that it can be played at an age when the stiffening muscle and the shortening breath practically forbid the playing of games which demand the unnatural exercise of
running. If we regard the pavilion at "Lord's" on the day of a great match, we perceive it filled with spectators of whom the large majority would as soon think of fighting with beasts in a Roman circus as of taking active part in a cricket match. And small blame to them. They have lived their little cricketing day, and cricket has been a good and wholesome servant to them. But even on our own great national game it behoves us to keep a watchful eye, to see that it does not slide down that easy descent into the vicious condition of spectacular. Games are valuable primarily for their active interest. We get but little benefit out of them by the merely Platonic excitement aroused by looking on. The Basques, isolated and surviving fragment of a racial stock that is but conjectured, are the most naturally game-playing of all races, with the possible, but by no means sure, exception of the Anglo-Saxon. They keep their rebot in some sort popular by practising it on every occasion against every blank wall that offers them opportunity ; but in its higher grades pelota has become purely a spectacle. The really first-class game must be one that will admit the many to a share in its highest developments, and it is a weak feature common to very many of our own games and to the great game of the Basques that the interest in them tends to become ever more and more spectacular.