Croquet: Fulford takes on the world in a most genteel battle: Croquet's world championship is played in near obscurity but the competition is still keen. Guy Hodgson reports

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The Independent Online
YOU had only to count the spectators at Carden Park near Chester yesterday to realise that Major Wingfield had a lot to answer for. But for him, who knows, the numbers attending the opening day of the World Croquet Championships might have reached double figures.

No doubt the ingenious 19th-century soldier had croquet's interests at heart when he strung a net across an adjoining court to give the ladies a chance to play a less robust game while the men indulged with ball and mallet. Sphairstike was what he called it but, to you and me, he had invented lawn tennis and set the world on a path to teenage tantrums and 'you cannot be serious'.

One hundred and twenty years later the bastard offspring has so outgrown the parent that wrong-coloured knickers at Wimbledon can create back-page news. Croquet, meanwhile, holds its premier tournament in a blaze of anonymity. Forty competitors were going through the hoops and the world looked another way.

Even so, there were times when you wondered which game had got the better deal. Ethics rule in croquet to the extent that the players referee matches themselves, and you would probably have to go back to the days of William Renshaw since a tennis star wandered up to an opponent and suggested: 'Well Doug, shall we get it over with then?' It is difficult to deny that the sport has its charm.

'It's a mixture of physical and mental stimulation,' Robert Fulford, the reigning champion, said. 'You have to swing through a ball like you do in golf but the tactics and the thought processes remind me of chess. I suppose the nearest game to it, with its angles, is snooker.'

Fulford began playing the game after fellow sixth- formers brought the gospel back from a school trip, and is the closest thing the sport has to a professional. He finances his participation with exhibitions and by coaching at a country club in North Carolina. 'It's a life,' he said, 'but I'm not sure it's a living. Certainly I can't afford to put money into the bank.'

The winner in 1990 and 1993, Fulford, at 25, hardly fits the popular image of croquet as a refuge for the elderly and privileged. Indeed, hardly anyone looked likely to go in search of cucumber sandwiches and a 'quick spin round the court with the vicar'. One participant, a pony-tailed American with, shall we say, a full figure held in by bright red braces and shorts might have been denied entry to the Dog and Duck darts night.

The genteel and relaxed atmosphere was deceptive, too. 'It's hugely competitive,' Reg Bamford, the South African who is most likely to deny Fulford a third title, said.

'It's hard to conceive, but you get into situations where the pressure is similar to a golfer standing over a three-foot putt to win the Open Championship.'

Not so pressured, though, that Bamford could not afford to delay his match with Rhys Thomas to have his lunch. They have their priorities right in croquet and its rules are not that bad either. In 1970 an edict was passed declaring that mallets must be made of 'wood, or any other material giving no advantage over wood'.

If only tennis had realised that father knows best.

(Photograph omitted)