Counterpoint: A defence of the slowball

by Victor Tan

Kinshasa, Zaire October 30, 1974. George Foreman was a powerhouse. Already an Olympic gold-medallist, the world heavyweight champion was a dominating figure in his mid-20s, armed with a right hook that could reliably dent a Tiger Tank. Muhammad Ali, a 32-year-old who had returned from a four-year hiatus, having been recently beaten by Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, and visibly slower than in his prime, was Foreman’s opponent. A Foreman win was already a foregone conclusion; the only question was whether it would be a second, third, or fourth round knockout for the reigning champ. Enter the rope-a-dope, and Ali pulled off one of the biggest upsets in history that night. David had felled Goliath.

Having read the article A Snapshot of Slowball Strategy by Kenny Stowe from February 8, which highly criticized the art of the quidditch slowball, one might reasonably take the impression that it is a cancer on the game, making the game “unenjoyable” and with the likelihood to “weaken the credibility as a sport.”

Given the scathing viewpoint taken by Stowe, one might assume that quidditch is no longer the enjoyable sport of the days of yesteryear. However, the reality is that like the rope-a-dope – or in terms of quidditch, like the beater 1.5; tight, harassing man-marking; or defensive seeking – it is simply another aspect of the game that has evolved from competition, and one without any detriment to the game or credibility of the sport.

Before continuing, I make the following statement to Kenny Stowe: I come in peace, and I say this because I am criticizing your article, not you as an author; not only do I think your overarching point is wrong, but profoundly so.

Stowe states that slowball is by no means an innovative strategy, and on this point, I for the most part agree. The slowball is not unique; the overarching train of thought in the game of taking every available second is seen in many other sports, such as soccer, football, and hockey.

The slowball is similar to that of a forward icing the clock after taking a mark on the forward fifty with a narrow lead in Australian rules football, the Tiki-Taka in soccer, or deliberately padding the ball away when it pitches outside leg in cricket. It is frustrating, mentally draining, and has been known to crack at the resolve of more than one hothead along the way.  

I also agree with Stowe about the circumstance in which it is used by teams that are usually vastly inferior on the pitch, teams who wish to win in spite of being physically and numerically outmatched.

However, it is about this point where my agreement with the position of Stowe ends.

Stowe states that slowballing promotes lazy play and one-dimensional offenses, and it discourages dynamic and creative playmaking. The fact of the matter is that this is flatly untrue. Scoring using a slowball is an art form in itself. Waiting for holes to appear in the defense is a skill that comes with experience; all it takes is an instant to exploit said gap and score. These attacks are not one-dimensional either, but can come from a timed drive through a gap, pinpoint pass, clever shepherding, or a combination of these. The fact of the matter is that when facing a good team, these holes do not frequently materialize, and with a team that is slower, weaker, or less skilled, even less frequently are these holes exploitable.

Looking for opportunities – The Cups Frost III | Photo Credit: Emily Selway Photography

There is nothing good, or even positive, about blazing away into stacked defenses, shooting low-percentage shots from a distance, or making high-risk plays that result in turnovers. Even in a fast-paced, evenly matched game, that sort of play would be seen as reckless at best, and if repeated, foolish, and much more so when turning it over to a far superior team.

The Perth Phoenixes were praised for their tactics against Melbourne Manticores at QUAFL 16 | Photo Credit: Ajantha Abey Quidditch PhotographyWhen playing against a far superior team, risking a turnover, particularly to a team with a deadly counterattack, the payoff is even lower.  Falling out of snitch range is a death knell for a team that can’t compete in high paced play. Even a 80% chance of scoring might well not be worth it when any resulting turnover results in a near certain goal. Captains who employ the slowball are acutely aware of this fact, and play to that. There’s nothing wrong with picking the moment where scoring the goal is an absolute certainty before attacking, and the slowballing team most certainly does not owe it to the defending team to take risks.

Stowe goes on to say, “Physically, it doesn’t push our limits, and although it keeps a game in range, I believe it doesn’t stimulate the competitive edge our sport possesses.”

“Why not?” I ask. Slowball requires immense discipline on the part of the slowballing team. In the same manner that holes appear in the defense, one mistimed hero moment, one brain fade, or one player falling asleep at the wrong moment can – and usually does – result in a turnover and an easy score to the opposition. It also tests the mental limits of the defending team; if they crack it is most certainly not the fault of the team employing the slowball.

Mentally, slowballing requires each of its employers to use every bit of steel as it does playing a conventional game, and in some cases far, far more. On more than one occasion, players using it have come to look incredibly foolish when they ran out of patience and blazed into attack only to be flattened or beaten. As for the claims of sacrificial players being used as clever disguises, or the situation where being flanked by armed beaters causes the defense to fall out of formation, kudos to its users. Even more credit to its users if it caused a hole to open in the defence that was then successfully exploited. Either way, it further demonstrates the idea that it requires no innovation, or does not push its employers to be better is not the case.

The idea that slowballing leads to an ugly, unenjoyable, and boring game that detracts from the viewing experience is not just fallacious, but also the wrong way to think about the sport. Teams play to win; making for an attractive viewing experience is of little relevance or even consideration to the teams involved. If it were, we would be enforcing beauty standards.

Even if I were to concede the point that slowball is ugly to watch, and I don’t, I cannot see why this is a point against it. Teams typically go into a match with the intention to a) be competitive, and b) to win, with all other considerations being secondary. At present, players are amateurs and are not paid by anybody to make a game look pretty.

The slowball is used against teams that are typically faster, stronger, fitter, and numerically superior. It is not a crime for a team faced against such a prospect to want to win, or playing to mitigate being thrashed.

The South Australian quidditch situation is a good reflection of this. The Adelaide Augureys are by far the best team in the state, with the strongest, fittest, most experienced, and largest playlist, yet they have been limited to 10 goals in two games against the Glenelg Gargoyles Quidditch Club; it has not stopped the Augureys from winning both games, but it has kept the score from being a blowout. Complain as they may about the slowball, as the Augureys certainly, frequently, and loudly do, the reality is that it has been effective in countering a team that is younger, faster, stronger, more experienced, and numerically superior.

Typically, if teams that do not have the strength, skill, experience, fitness, or depth of list playing against a team that has all of those play a conventional game, they are likely to get flogged, and by a very large margin.

Contrast this to when the weaker team does pull off that snitch catch. How does everyone react?  Usually pretty well. Everyone loves a good underdog story.

The last three rulebooks have seen the rules on the slowball tighten up significantly, to the point where it is, in fact, fairly difficult to abuse. No longer can two players pass to one another repeatedly on their side of the field, and no longer can a player tiptoe laterally up the field. Only under pressure, or where a legitimate attacking option is open cross-field can a player reset, and even then, only once. At the moment, the burden lies as much with the offense to advance the quaffle into a legitimate attacking position as it does with the defense to recover the quaffle. “Time wasting” is difficult at the best of times, more frequently impossible. Tightening the restrictions even further is simply forcing play into stacked defences, regardless of whether or not there is opportunity to do so.

Demanding that the rules be tightened around the slowball is not going to boost the numbers of spectators watching the game. There is not any evidence to suggest that slowball is driving away spectators, or that it is not exciting to watch. The Perth Phoenixes-Melbourne Manticores game was well-watched from the sidelines, and literally not one person stood up and walked away because they were disgusted with the slowball tactic. Purely from an anecdotal point of view, the commentary at the game was just how cleverly the Perth Phoenixes were playing.

The Perth Phoenixes were praised for their tactics against Melbourne Manticores at QUAFL 16 | Photo Credit: Ajantha Abey Quidditch Photography

As a spectator sport, sure, it is a fast-paced game, but is anyone really cheering for the highly fancied team handing a 20-goal flogging to their hapless victims? What joy is there in watching successful drive after drive, or pass after pass, usually the same identical play by the same players, over and over again against an increasingly dispirited defense for whom the enjoyment of the game stopped long ago, and all they want is for the game to be over? This applies not just to quidditch, but to any sport. Unless the victims are complete jerks off the pitch, have acted as though their winning was a foregone conclusion and playing is just a formality, or possibly the Collingwood Football Club, Manchester United, or the New York Yankees, it is really not that enjoyable.

Taking away the availability of the tactic just because some people – typically people in well-established, powerful teams with large rosters of capable players – do not want to watch is not going to improve the game as a spectacle; it’s simply reinforcing the position of teams who win games playing conventional strategies against weaker teams. It’s like forcing Muhammad Ali to stand toe-to-toe with George Foreman; it’s taking away David’s sling so that he has to face Goliath in his element. The loudest voices against slowball aren’t from spectators who now find the game boring, they’re from experienced and established players who find themselves faced with a tactic which they are so far unable to counter.

So, for those wanting to see the end of it, or to have it tightened further to the point where it is no longer practical to execute; is it really good for the sport to reinforce the status quo of the strongest, most powerful teams at the expense of weaker teams and newcomers? Until leagues legislate slowballing out of the sport, it is not the team’s responsibility to prioritize entertainment over winning.

1 Comment

  1. I agree with this article. When watching the Texas State vs Texas Cavalry on YouTube, on one hand after the snitch came on pitch, there were like two times the team with the quaffle tried scoring. It was a little ‘boring’ but at the same time I was kept in tension, is it this time they’re going to suddenly jump forward and score?
    Now, I’m from Poland and in Europe there aren’t that many matches where hardly anything happens due to slowballing. I actually think that getting a good grip on the art of slowballing is crucial to get some time on the pitch to just have a breath, not constantly run forward and see the big picture: how can we proceed to complete a successful attack.
    Until the team masters passing and ball handling, they don’t stand a chance against tougher opponents. And slowballing forces those skills to rise in order to be successful.
    And I find it very hard to believe there’s a one fits all tactic without a counter tactic, so someone will find a good way to defeat a snowballing team.

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