Time is trap for croquet

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THE Olympics will need to extend its programme by a couple of weeks if croquet ever joins the party. It's been 92 years since Games spectators tried to decipher the timeless meanderings of an absorbing game, and not very much has changed.

The hoops are now a 16th of an inch wider than the coloured balls and there's a time limit on games. But it has hardly turned the world's most leisurely sport into a 100 metre dash. While enthusiasts claim a 10-hour match can be as gripping as watching Russian roulette, you can't see Sony buying it.

'It's a jolly exciting game, not at all garden parties and vicars in the shrubbery,' Chris Hudson, the national development officer, said. Croquet is easy to learn (guide your balls through six hoops, clockwise and anti-clockwise, before your opponent); it's cheap (a mallet costs as little as pounds 30); it doesn't require strength or an athletic frame (Robert Fulford and Chris Clarke, two leading players, are best described as 'ample') and it's intellectually stimulating.

But croquet's problem is much greater than overcoming the images evoked by its most renowned enthusiast, Harpo Marx. This is an elitist sport simply because it requires lots of time and space.

Not many of us have a bowling- green quality lawn twice the size of a tennis court. The number of clubs may have doubled over the past four years, but the Croquet Association is still some way off holding its annual meeting in the Albert Hall. (Incidentally, Wimbledon started as a croquet club, mallets and hoops were ousted when the committee discovered a fashionable new game that needed only half the space.)

Hudson claims the ideal player combines the chess brain of Nigel Short, the snooker ability of Stephen Hendry and the mathematical skills of Pythagoras. You're starting to see why the Sun does not carry a croquet column. I would add to these talents the patience of a package holidaymaker flying from Gatwick and the spare time of a minor royal.

A single game can last longer than it takes to get out of the car park at Wembley. Though matches are now limited to 10 hours, a tournament displays the helter- skelter qualities of a slow bicycle marathon. It's tough enough to retain your concentration waiting for a turn when your opponent is on the lawn for several hours. Even harder is finding the time to enter tournaments.

With 120 competitions a year, the Croquet Association allows players to enter under pseudonyms. 'This is for someone who has taken time off work sick and who is frightened his boss may spot his name in the paper,' Hudson said.

It's a facility often used by leading players. They pay a heavy price for croquet addiction. The England international, Clarke, almost flunked his degree (he squeezed a third); Debbie Cornelius, our leading woman player, admits she will have to work harder to pass her management accounting exams; and Fulford, the world champion, has just failed his maths degree.

Fulford, who retained his ATCO British Open title at Hurlingham on Sunday, admits: 'I am a croquet bum.' Such a talent is unlikely to bring fame or fortune. He collected pounds 25 for winning the British Open last year but that has dropped to nothing (though he did pick up a rather nice mower).

Can anything be done about the timelessness that is croquet's essence and enemy? Yorkshire TV recently put on the paradoxically named Speed Croquet where players race against the clock and a game took a mere 20 minutes. Hudson claims it had 26 per cent of the total audience in the region, but he is evasive when asked how many thousands have since joined the croquet set.

Mark Saurin, who took up croquet after being hit on the head with a mallet, would like to see rule changes. 'Top players are so good now that there's an inevitability about it all once they get on the lawn.' Fulford thinks faster lawns would make a difference. But making it harder also makes games longer - which is where we came in.

Croquet started in Ireland and Britain still dominates, with all the world's leading players. But it was the French who took all the medals at croquet's only Olympic appearance. The explanation is simple. The 600 members of a Paris club were the only ones to enter.