Getting to Know Netball

Regular readers (approximately 95% of the human population) know that I'm a sucker for both obscure sports and obscure leagues. Towards that end, I have started watching netball matches, primarily in the Australian and New Zealand leagues, although it is popular in England and, to a lesser extent, the Caribbean anglosphere and South Africa, too.

It's played mostly by woman (I'm not sure why), and I'm enjoying it. So let me tell you about it!

If you take a cursory glance at netball, your first thought will likely be the same as mine: this is like basketball without the backboard.

Indeed, the object is to shoot a ball into a hoop that is nearly the same size and the same height as what is standard in basketball, although the standard hoop color seems to be white rather than orange.

After that, however, the difference start to fade. For starters, baskets are worth one point, not two. There is no dribbling. A player who catches a pass cannot let their landing foot touch the ground again if it is lifted at all while in possession of the ball, so players can take 1.5 steps while holding the ball — and they have three seconds to pass it to someone else.

Defense? To me, it's the heart and soul of the game, which may surprise you when I tell you players have to stay a three full feet away from the player they are defending. This means the only physical contact typically allowed between players is when they are both going for a ball in the air or loose on the floor, and even that can be whistled if it's considered "impeding." I'll get to why I think defense is the crux of the game later.

Netball is played 7v7, but only two players, those playing the "Goal shooter" and "Goal attack" positions, can shoot, and they can only do so in the "goal circle," which I'd guesstimate is equal to what you'd get if you shrunk the key in basketball to about 60% of its usual size.

Similarly, only two players — the "goal keeper" and "goal defense" can join their offensive counterparts in the goal circle to try to defend the goal, but remember, they have stay three feet away from the player they are defending.

What this means in practical terms is that if the goal shooter, usually the tallest player on offense, gets the ball under the basket, they're looking at a virtually uncontested layup by basketball standards. They take a second to line up their shot and shoot it, and even without the benefit of a backboard, make their shots north of 90% of the time in pro levels. Jumpers are quite rare outside of Australia (read on for why).

You might be saying to yourself, "that sounds boring! (or worse)" and you aren't exactly wrong. Indeed, the Australian top-level league has even introduced a two-pointer zone, a semicircle within the goal circle at about mid-range jumper range, in play only the last few minutes of every quarter, to spice things up. However, in my opinion at least, scoring is not the fun and interesting part of this sport, unintuitive as that may sound. Read on.

Besides the goal circles, the court is split into three other sections: two "goal thirds," just outside the goal circles, and the center third between them.

Here's where it starts to get interesting: players have to stay in the two adjacent parts of the court governed by their positions (except for the center, who gets the middle three zones). For example, those playing that goal shooter position have to stay in the goal circle or the (offensive) goal third; goal keepers have to stay in their opponents goal circle or the (defensive) goal third.

All players are similarly limited to two adjacent zones (here's a complete rundown of all seven positions and their zones) — and a pass can only go a maximum of one zone up. If you're in the center third and your goal scorer is wide open under the basket, too bad - it has to go to a player in the goal third first. The largest characters on your jersey is not your number, but your position initialism ("GS," "GK," etc.) to make things easier on officials.

Why or how does this make things interesting? Because it means the passing lanes are CLOGGGGGED. And remember, you only have three seconds to make your pass, and you're going to be limited to the players in your zone or the next zone away. And, oh yes — your pass must travel at least three feet. No handoffs.

This means there are steals (more commonly, interceptions, as we yanks understand them) galore. Furthermore, such steals can be a lot more punitive in netball than in basketball. Why? Because after a scored basket, teams alternate possession at the center circle no matter which team scored the basket.

In other words, if your team starts the game with the ball, and of my players steals it and we score, it's still going to be our ball when play resumes — it's our turn. Who scored last has got nothing to do with it.

And that, my friends, is where netball becomes intriguing, fun, and well worth watching — not the scoring. Give it a try.

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