Croquet: The badgering of the clans

Andrew Longmore samples a game of mystery on croquet's jolly good birthday
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The Independent Online
There was a time, in the Eighties, remembered with no great fondness in the game itself, when croquet claimed to be the fastest growing sport in Britain. The Croquet Association had a dynamic development officer, clubs sprouted up all over the land and croquet was actively promoted as rollerball with cucumber sandwiches. The Sports Council had even been persuaded that a game hitherto confined to the verdant lawns of the gentry would follow snooker as the new sporting opium of the masses.

"It was a false start," says Stephen Badger, chairman of the CA Council. "One of the problems is that we have a bad image with the public. They call croquet a 'vicious' game. It comes from putting your foot on the ball and whacking your opponent into the flower beds. But actually that rule went out in the last century. It's just quite difficult to get the hang of, that's all."

Just as suddenly as they had formed, the new clubs folded and croquet returned happily to its world of tices and bisques, drives, peels and rolls, to its elderly ladies who use the long hiatuses between strokes to enjoy a chat, to schoolboys and merchant bankers, barristers and barrow boys who savour its geometric precision and tactical subtleties and compete for age-old trophies called the Secretary's Spoon and the Sturdy Seniors Cup. When a fresh-faced schoolboy talks "of mystifying his opponents" and matching his wits against theirs, you know that this is the summer game for grand masters and crossword addicts. Croquet is not learnt, it is handed down from birth.

This weekend, a cross-section of the croquet community, attired in whites ancient and modern, flitted gently across the lawns of the Cheltenham Croquet Club in honour of the centenary of the CA. It was a thoroughly democratic occasion, graced by duffers and champions, nearly 200 of us in all, believed by some of the more statistically minded to be the largest ever gathering of the croquet clans. The youngest was 13, the oldest, well, say, upper 80s, all well muffled against a cooling breeze and grey skies. One Cheltenham member is 98 and joined the CA before the First World War, widely regarded as the heyday of the sport.

Into this picturesque English scene strode the Dulwich Badgers, a makeshift quartet which boasted Badger himself, a retired merchant banker resplendent in white galoshes and an umpire's coat, the deputy chief executive of the Securities and Investments Board, a contract manager for a trucking company and me. Happily, the man from the trucking company doubled as the world champion, Chris Clarke, stretching his legs in preparation for the British Masters later this week and for the defence of his world title in Perth in November, a player of such dead-eyed accuracy and sure technique he would expect to hit a ball from 40 feet away 55 per cent of the time and 30 feet seven times out of ten.

"The beauty of croquet is that it's easy, much easier than snooker," he says. "In snooker, every shot has to be spot on, out there you can make a poor shot and recover." Like snooker, the art is in judgment of pace and placement of the cue ball, and mistakes are punished by long bouts of star-gazing. For Clarke, completing a game is as casual as clearing the colours. The skill is in defence and calculating percentages, sensing which shots your opponent might dare.

Clarke made it look simplicity itself as he guided my ball gently in front of the hoops so that a margin of error of just one-eighth of an inch did not seem so terrible. That we lost the opening game was due entirely to a consignment of cucumbers which should have gone to Castleford, ended up in Leicester Market and disturbed Clarke's sleep at four in the morning. That we lost the second was due to my inability to peg out twice from six feet. Everyone watched, everyone was terribly nice. "Players can get the yips, you know, just like golf," Clarke said cheerily.

Survival training at Queen Elizabeth's, Blackburn, where croquet players had to stand their corner, has honed the competitive instinct in the champion. "I was teased, until I began bringing back some trophies. Then people took notice." Now he can return with the world title, won unexpectedly but with some panache last summer in France. At that level, croquet is deeply psychological, Clarke says, vicious in its way, though trust and honour still run deep enough for players to call their own faults. At Cheltenham, the first clack was heard at 9.15am, the last 10 hours and 100 matches later as one final cry ushered croquet towards a new century. "Jolly good shot."

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