Yesterday I went to Roehampton to watch the quarter finals of the Association Croquet World Championships 2013.  This turned out to be a salutary experience.

If you belong to a club and already play association croquet do not bother to read any further; it will be a waste of your time.  However, if you think croquet is a joke and/or you play croquet in your back garden on a bumpy lawn where it is OK to hit your opponents ball  into the flower border, what follows might be mildly interesting (only might be!).

If you are in the latter category (and you should be by now, otherwise why are you reading on?), I need to explain some things before you can appreciate why watching was, for me, salutary.

The first thing to appreciate is that a full size croquet lawn is big (35 by 28 yards) and very flat (akin to a bowling green).  Stepping onto such a vast, perfect expanse of short cropped grass is daunting.  The four lawns at Roehampton are like this. In fact, the first time I went to Roehampton the grass was so perfect that I was convinced it was artificial!

The second thing to appreciate is that the object of the game is to pass your two balls through 12 hoops and then hit them both against the peg in the middle of the lawn before your opponent.  Each time you run a hoop you score a point (two balls, 12 hoops = 24 points) with an additional two points for touching the peg with both balls; the total possible score is therefore 26.

The third thing is to understand that there are three basic shots taken in sequence; a roquet is where you hit another ball, you then qualify to take croquet (a shot unique to croquet – hence the name of the game) and, last in the sequence, you have a continuation shot that might cause your ball to roquet another ball, therefore starting the sequence all over again.  Or, the continuation shot might cause your ball to pass through a hoop and this allows you to roquet and croquet all the balls over again.

Intellectually it is easy to understand the roquet-croquet-continuation shot sequence but tactically the opportunities these three shots create is complex. Really good players can use these shots to build a four ball break which results in them passing through at least 12 hoops in one turn (I have only ever managed to do this a handful of times).  I say ‘at least’ because the top players can also use their ball to peel another ball through a hoop.  So, it is possible, but by my standards truly remarkable, to score 26 points in a single turn.

That’s the end of this crash course on the basics of association croquet.  Suffice to say, I am hooked on this intriguing game and the more I struggle with it, the stronger my addiction becomes.

So why did I find watching the quarter finals of the World Championship a salutary experience?  In a nutshell it is because I realise that the top players are playing a game that I can just about recognise, can even aspire to, but which realistically is way beyond my reach – physically and mentally. There are a number of reasons why this is so.  The top players are depressingly young (or so they seem to an old codger like me).  They play with breathtaking precision putting the balls exactly where they want them.  They make very few errors (I watched five games yesterday and only saw two real errors).

But I came away realising that the croquet I play, a topsy-turvy game with countless self-inflicted errors and perilously close results, is much more fun.  Three out of the five games I watched yesterday resulted in one player scoring 26 and their opponent scoring nil. I even saw one player, banished from the lawn while his opponent took his balls faultlessly round all the hoops, with ample time to walk to the clubhouse (at least five minutes away), buy a glass of red wine at the bar (after waiting in a small queue) and wander back to the lawn again.  One can hardly blame him for consoling himself with a glass of wine, but where’s the fun in playing a game where one player hogs all the play and you score zilch?

Whilst marvelling at the skills of the top players, the game they play is not the game I’m hooked on.  Thank goodness since it is beyond my reach!


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