This man is British and he's a world champion, but does anyone care?

As Henman and England lose famously, Michael Streeter meets a winner we ignore
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The Independent Online
He may not be a teenage heart-throb or on his way to a pounds 1m promotional contract, but Chris Clarke has got something Tim Henman hasn't - a big sporting title.

Clarke is that rare British thing, a world champion. Last year, aged just 24, he was acknowledged the best croquet player on Earth when he won the international championships in France.

The former Blackburn Grammar schoolboy was the youngest winner, at 17, of the prestigious President's Cup, an invitation event for the sport's top players, and with friend Robert Fulford forms perhaps the best doubles partnership croquet has ever seen.

But while Henman, 21, looks towards stardom despite (or because of) his Wimbledon quarter-final defeat, outside the hard-core of the croquet cognoscente the name of Chris Clarke, a cost analysis manager, is all but unknown.

It seems unjust for a player who displays all the skill, mental robustness and bloody-mindedness necessary for a top sportsman.

He recalls with annoyance last year's BBC TV's Sports Review of the Year when he was invited for the evening along with representatives of other minority sports.

"It was a very pleasant evening," he concedes. "Two or three minority sports were featured, including fly-fishing and clay pigeon shooting - but there was no mention that we had a croquet world champion.

"It's another example of where you put a lot into the sport, you go without proper holidays for years, achieve something and become world champion - and yet it often seems as if no one cares less."

Part of the problem, as Clarkeadmits, is that croquet is no spectator sport. Games can last up to seven hours and the rules are complex. Triple or even sextuple "peeling" (complicated ways of hitting your opponent's ball) are concepts unlikely to enthrall the casual observer. Top players can think up to 20 moves ahead.

Today Clarke will play in the British Open (an event he has yet to win) at the Hurlingham Club in Fulham, south-west London. Not more than a few hundred spectators are expected.

And yet the game, despite its associations with Alice in Wonderland and vicarage garden parties, is enjoying a renaissance. Up to 400,000 people in Britain play some form of the game, mostly the more streamlined Garden Croquet.

Seventy schools take part in a national competition and 130 clubs are registered with the Croquet Association. Sixteen nations are affiliated to the World Croquet Federation.

Great Britain captain Clarke is seen as one of the "young turks" of croquet - the national side has an average age of just 27.

Croquet can also boast one of the essential requirements for a sport wanting to be taken seriously - political wrangling. Clarke has still not received his silver trophy for winning the World Championship because he and other English players have refused to settle a bill for unsuitable accommodation at the tournament. "I haven't set eyes on the trophy since the championships. In theory we are going to banned from the next World Championships, but if they do it, it will not be a World Championship in a real sense." Accusing the WCF of "total incompetence" over the issue he says: "Top players feel they do not represent our viewpoint."

These top players talk a lot about mental toughness and controlled aggression, pointing out that the pressures in the closing stages of a tense championship fixture are as demanding as any sport. "As in other sports, like tennis and golf, when the best players have to they can do something different. Your mental toughness means you raise your game when you have to."

Croquet has a historical affinity with tennis. In 1870, British tennis's headquarters, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club at Wimbledon, was called the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, because croquet was the more popular sport. Those were the days.

Croquet

The origins of croquet are obscure, perhaps coming from a game called Pall Mall, probably of French origin. The rules were first codified in 1857 in Britain. Association Croquet is played with four balls, blue and black against red and yellow, on a grass court measuring 35 yards by 28. The object is for one team (one or two players) to be the first to propel their balls through six hoops in each direction, then "peg out" by hitting a central peg.

There are two basic strokes. Making a "roquet" is hitting your ball against another. Each successful stroke allows you a "continuation" shot. Hitting your ball through a hoop also allows another shot. As in snooker, it is possible to score a "break" and complete the course without your opponent getting another stroke.

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