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Why you don't need a beret to play the sport of the future

A form of petanque was played in Egypt, ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Now the game, as Andy Martin discovers, is conquering Britain
Sir Francis Drake did not coolly play a game of bowls before sailing off to sink the Armada. He played petanque or possibly boules, but definitely not bowls. "You have to remember, he would have been playing with cannonballs," said Roy Buckthorpe, president of the Lincoln Branleys Petanque Club. The smooth, staid, manicured lawns were a later innovation, a derivation from the more rough-hewn original terrain.

The Champion of Champions petanque contest was being held on Sunday - not in the town square of Avignon or Aix, but at the back of the Adam and Eve pub in the shadow of the towers of Lincoln cathedral, beneath spreading oaks and ash. "Triples", three-man/woman teams, consisting of a "pointeur" (pointer), a "tireur" (shooter), and a "milieu" (middleman), from all over Britain were competing. Only the weather and the vocabulary were Provencal.

There was one man there in a floppy beret and flowing beard, who radiated an aura of Gauloises and garlic and whose belt bespoke a lifetime of croissants and cordon bleu. But he turned out to be Dudley Lewin, a head teacher from Warwickshire, representing the East Midlands, and national executive vice-president. He did confess to being a Francophile, though. "You don't have to be a Francophile to play this game," he said, "but it probably helps."

Roy Buckthorpe worked for JB Boules, the Coca-Cola or IBM of petanque, and saw everything through boule-shaped glasses. This is the history of the world according to JB. Egypt: the earliest known boules discovered in a sarcophagus, so the Egyptian idea of heaven included playing petanque. Greece: the Olympic games (discus, shot) an offshoot of boules. Rome: exports the game to Asterix and the Gauls. The Renaissance: boules reach England and Flanders. The twentieth century: petanque attains its canonical form when a crippled bouliste, instead of running up to throw the boule, devised the fixed feet-together ("ped tanco" or "pieds tanques") stance. The modern period begins, in 1920, when Jean Blanc (JB) invents the hollow steel ball of today.

In Lincoln, the game dates from 1980 when Peter Mann, a French teacher, brought the game back after spending his university year abroad in the south of France. He and his wife, Liz, dug the 13 pistes at the Adam and Eve themselves, digging up the smooth, manicured lawns and laying down some rough and uneven grit and gravel on a limestone base, a la francaise.

But Lincoln was only following in the wake of most of the rest of the world. The recent world championships in Brussels were not like an American World Series in baseball, but lived up to its billing, pulling in representatives from over 70 nations.

Just as the British Empire left a trail of cricket balls and stumps in its wake, so too the French Empire left behind (in so far as they have indeed left) a tradition of petanque in the Far East and Africa. The French never left home without their boules, which came in handy when they ran out of cannonballs. In some Asian countries it is now reckoned to be the national game. They even play it in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

In Brussels a full stadium followed the World Championships as fanatically as any football fans - and there can be professional fouls on the field. A Belgian (playing against Algeria) strolled nonchalantly on to the adjacent piste, where Britain were playing Norway, to hold up play so a fellow Belgian could take his shot undistracted. The Brits saw him off again. "It was so arrogant," Pat Watts, our numero un in triples, recalled. "The Belgian crowd didn't see it that way, though. They were roaring for Norway and baying for our blood. I didn't give them two fingers, I was just signalling I'd shot two boules."

There is also the risk of injury in petanque, and not just from bloodthirsty Belgians. "The boules are potentially lethal weapons," said Dave Hancox, from the East Midlands team. "When you're coaching youngsters that can be a problem - to stop them shooting them at one another."

In Lincoln, the Champion of Champions match was played with panache but passed off peacefully and without injury, and was won by a trio from the South-East comprising B Wing, N Horrigan, and D Chalkley. No one scored a "fanny" (or zero), so-called owing to a nineteenth-century Lyonnais tradition which required a player who failed to score to kiss the naked derriere of a remarkably indulgent local woman of that name.

In Britain there are 5,000 registered players. Dudley Lewin believes that we now have a historic opportunity to spread the gospel of petanque in this country. "My crusade is to get it into schools. John Major wants to push sport as part of the national curriculum. Well, petanque is cheap, you don't need expensive fields to play it on, girls can compete on an equal footing with boys, and you don't have to be athletic to excel at it either. Petanque is the sport of the future."