Almanack: Hoops of joy confuse sad fans

TO Carden Park in leafy Cheshire, 'Europe's Premier Resort', an extravagantly landscaped chunk of countryside dedicated to the hedonistic pursuits of the comfortably off. It is the creation of John L Broome (CBE), who did for Battersea Power Station what the Israelites did for Jericho. The plan for Carden Park was that it would stage seven events at the Manchester Olympics. As was. In fact, the verdant venue is at present staging the World Croquet Championship, which is a bit of a come-down for Mr John L Broome (CBE).

Still: stripy marquees, fluttering flags, nice comfy chairs, nine spectators. Or nearly 1.3 for each match taking place on the seven immaculate lawns. 'When do they start?' one of them asked an official, watching players apparently practising, strolling up and down the lawns, biffing balls about without any opponents in sight. 'They have started,' he replied. 'They've been playing nearly an hour.'

In this respect, top-level croquet is like top-level snooker. One good 'turn', the equivalent of a break in snooker, can take at least 40 minutes. The player thwacks away at his ball with his mallet, aiming to hit the other three balls in play (one his, two his opponent's), thus gaining extra shots that will enable him to steer his two balls twice through the six hoops on the lawn (one sixteenth of an inch wider than the ball) and finally against the central post (the 'peg') to win the game.

It sounds fiendishly difficult. But the experts at the championships, male or female, 16 or 62, with their titanium-shafted,

hardwood-headed mallets, find the process of getting ball through hoop embarrassingly easy. So easy that a player is now compelled to let his opponent on to the lawn after successfully negotiating nine hoops in a row.

This is what happened to the veteran New Zealander Bob Jackson in his match with Debbie Cornelius, the English women's champion. Bob streaked away to a useful lead and looked to be a certain winner after a mere hour-and- a-bit. But then Debbie was on the lawn, balls were flying in all directions and Bob's aspect became craggier. He barely got another look-in before the 28-year-old accountant 'pegged out' to win.

'That was hard work,' Debbie said afterthe match. 'Bob is one of the all-time greats of the game.' One of the best things about croquet is that it is an event in which men and women compete on equal terms. Why, then, don't more women win major competitions? 'It's difficult to tell,' Debbie mused. 'It's certainly not physical. It could be that women lack that competitive edge. But I'm trying to prove that wrong here.' Youth triumphs over age, female over male, decorum over drama. What more could Mr John L Broome (CBE) ask from sport at his grand arena? Spectators?

(Photograph omitted)

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