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A sport for everyone?

Why croquet is a sport that thrives in its contradictions

The traditional perception of croquet as a genteel, chess-like game is very much at odds with the game’s true nature – at least at an amateur level. Nothing satisfies more than, with the other players baying for blood, stepping up and pummelling your arch-enemy’s ball deep into the thickest possible hedge to raucous jeers of approval.

The Elysian setting of many croquet lawns (particularly in Oxford), with immaculate grass, a spreading beech tree, and a jug of Pimm’s on the table, can serve to mask the casual malice of the game.

Participants may look like they are getting along, with the game often proceeding very slowly. But in their grasp they have blunt wooden instruments capable of denting even the most resilient of skulls. Despite the game often being played on vicarage-like lawns, it can often have such an incendiary effect on those taking part.

In contrast, professional croquet is often dubbed “snooker on grass” – with the successful player often having to think multiple shots ahead – and avoids the viciousness popularly associated with amateur croquet. In top-flight croquet it is tactically unwise to dispatch your opponent into the shrubbery, not least because there is rarely any shrubbery enclosing professional croquet lawns, just a neatly marked-out court.

It is also strange to think that, in order to achieve maximum control in croquet, you are expected to strike the ball with the smallest face of the mallet… why don’t we all consistently hit tennis balls with the frame (on purpose that is), footballs with our toes and putt with the tip of our putters?

It’s also difficult to process that this game is in fact a race between participants to get a ball through a prescribed order of hoops with a mallet in the quickest time, since everything happens so slowly.

By the same token, extreme versions of this genteel sport seem somewhat contradictory: the aptly named “extreme croquet” shuns the garden setting for a more robust terrain which lacks any out-of-bounds or field specifications, featuring hills, mud, sand and water hazards. Bicycle croquet is another variation, in which players are allowed just ten seconds to complete a shot. Meanwhile, millions of people around the world play Japanese “gateball”, a sort of five-a-side speed croquet.

Croquet even managed to make its way to the South Pole in 2005 when a group of American scientists played the game outside the South Pole Observatory. The UK’s highest croquet lawn was created in 2016 in the form of a pop-up croquet garden at the top of the shard. In this sense, croquet seems to be following a similar tack to golf: removing the sport from its traditionally stable environment and placing it in ever-extreme conditions. Cross the game of croquet with a game of miniature golf and you get the hybrid “crazy croquet”.

Moving on from the setting and the technicalities of the sport to the people who play it: just like sports such as boxing or darts, there have been plenty of colourfully-named professional players over the years in croquet, such as Colin “Gritter” Irwin and hall-of-famer David “The Beast” Maugham. This is not something you might expect from a sport that is traditionally considered snobbish and aloof.

To be sure, croquet is not an entirely exclusive sport, and in Oxford’s Trinity term when all you need is something that resembles the right equipment, a bit of space, and a group of friends who want to get involved, this side of the game becomes clear.

Yes, participants tend to be older, mainly because they have got the time to do it, but there are plenty of people in their forties who play as well. In fact, in common with bowls, the majority of players are pensioners, but at the game’s highest level, players tend to be much younger, since strong eyesight and good balance are essential in a sport which requires that players try to knock a ball through a small hoop 30 metres away. Furthermore, despite its reputation as an outdated and conservative sport which works against progression, croquet was in fact the first outdoor sport to embrace equality by allowing both sexes to play the game on an equal footing.

Nonetheless, croquet seems incapable of shaking off its categorisation either as a post-prandial lark for posh people looking for something frivolously sociable to do in their country houses or as a confusing competitive sport that has too many governing bodies, tournaments, and arcane rules to keep track of. However, one of the most amusing things about croquet is that everyone plays it according to their own marginally different rules. At the highest level, there is of course Association Croquet. Golf Croquet is easier to compute and is widely played in many clubs, and then there’s Garden Croquet, a simplified form of Association Croquet. This does have official rules, but in practice it’s likely to be as idiosyncratic as your playing group.

Indeed, Lewis Carroll’s surreal version of the game in Alice in Wonderland typifies the make-your-own-rules approach to croquet which forms part of the sport’s unique appeal: a hedgehog was used as the ball and a flamingo as the mallet, while soldiers doubled over to make the hoops.

Despite being a fictional representation of the game, it shows how playing in different environments and with different equipment, rules, and participants, croquet can be endlessly entertaining. Croquet is, at its core, a test of tactics, strategy, and skill but it can also just be an opportunity to socialise and drink yourself tipsy.

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