When Cecil Tyndale-Biscoe came to Kashmir in 1890 his ambition was to make men, or ‘MEN!’ as he tended to think of them. As an Anglican missionary and educationist, he firmly believed that physical exercise, sportsmanship and a good sense of humour could work wonders for the Kashmiri population.
There were some early shocks — his discovery, for example, of the Srinagar Sodomy Society — but Tyndale-Biscoe’s will prevailed. Ignoring local traditions and caste prejudices, he taught Kashmiri boys how to swim, skate and row. He rode Kashmir’s first bicycle and chased pornographers from the bazaar. All these events were sensational, but nothing could equal the consternation that greeted the sight of Kashmir’s first football.
He brought it back from a trip to Bombay in 1891, together with a new wife who was fresh off the ship from England. Then he assembled the school and held up the ball. The boys’ reaction is recorded in his autobiography (Tyndale-Biscoe of Kashmir, 1951). “What is that?” the boys asked. It is a football, said Tyndale-Biscoe. “What is the use of it?” For playing a game. “Shall we receive any money if we play that game?” No! “Then we will not play that game,” said the boys.
The real protest, however, came when Tyndale-Biscoe disclosed that his ball was made of leather. Many of his pupils were from orthodox Brahmin families. But Tyndale-Briscoe drew diagrams of football positions on his blackboard and that very day herded his class to the pitch, where teachers armed with staves made sure that no boy escaped.
Round rolling objects have always brought out the most playful of animal spirits (witness a cat with a marble). Thanks to the intervention of the English Football Association, these spirits had now been harnessed to rules and ideas of “fair play” that were just as immutable and esoteric as the Brahminical code.
We don’t know who made Tyndale-Biscoe’s ball. But we can take a good guess at its weight (13 to 15 ounces when dry) and its circumference (27 to 28 inches when fully inflated) because the English Football Association had specified them in 1873, finally bringing to a close the many dark centuries when players had made do with human skulls or animal bladders of ungovernable shape.
Other than an extra ounce granted in 1937, very little has changed since: the controversial Jabulani ball now being kicked around in South Africa weighs 439 grams and has a circumference of 69 cm. The radical differences have come in design and material, in the quest to find a geometrically perfect sphere.
In Tyndale-Biscoe’s day, the ball was very much an animal or organic product. Until rubber became widespread in the 1900s, most inner tubes were the bladders of cows or pigs (a possibility Tyndale-Biscoe seems not to have mentioned to his Muslim students). The best covers came from a cow’s rump. Roundness was elusive; leather stitched lengthwise in sections produced peaks at the globe’s north and south poles. How could you achieve a durable sphere from materials that were flexible and flat?
Until 1970, the balls used at World Cups were made by the host country and went unremarked. In Mexico in 1970, however, the German company Adidas provided the ball, as it has in every World Cup since. It was a spherical polyhedron comprising 12 pentagons dyed black and 20 hexagons dyed white, which made it rounder and more visible on monochrome television. Adidas called it the Telstar and followed it with other named balls at every World Cup — the Tango in Argentina, the Tricolore in France — each of them promising that it was somehow faster, softer or rounder than its predecessor. The first completely synthetic ball replaced the leather version at the 1986 event and thereafter no footballer feared repeated insults to the brain by heading a waterlogged ball.