In the croquet world the position is even worse than that. Most of the human race - in England at least - have heard of croquet and therefore believe that they know something about the game, whereas what they mostly have in mind when the word croquet is mentioned is a totally mythical world of crinolines, cucumber sandwiches and vicarage lawns. Oh yes, Lewis Carroll certainly has a lot to answer for!
Journalists in particular have a similar built-in set of conditioned reflexes so that the first ten minutes of any interview have to be spent in unwinding them from these historic bindings.
Because croquet is not what most people think, it is always necessary to get the standard misconceptions out of the way so that they can think rather more clearly about what kind of a sport it really is.
First - it is not an upper class diversion. This notion comes from the 1860s when croquet provided women with the completely new experience of playing an outdoor game - and with men! Garden party croquet provided a chance for dalliance - a kind of croquet and crumpet era - but it soon became a disciplined sport. The first Open Championship was held in 1867.
Second – there are two separate versions of the modern games, called Association Croquet and Golf Croquet, neither of which should be confused with various ‘garden’ games played, usually with wire hoops and either wooden or plastic balls (often bought by credulous people in the belief that they have acquired proper croquet equipment). Such games, fun though they undoubtedly are, are usually simplified variations of early versions of the game. Such croquet has about as much in common with the real thing as cricket played on the beach with a tennis ball has with what happens at Lords or the Oval.
Third - it is not a vicious game. This is the standard adjective that people use when expressing polite interest in one's slightly eccentric obsession with croquet. This is truly a myth - a folk memory - perhaps from being hit into the shrubbery by a bouncy extrovert uncle in a childhood garden croquet game. And you do not ever put your foot on a ball and bash it hard in order to send your opponent's touching ball into the far distance!
Fourth - no - it is not played exclusively by ancient colonels and vicars and their lady wives. Most international players are in their twenties and thirties, although one of the interesting features of the game is that a very effective handicapping system permits a septuagenarian of either sex playing on equal terms against a county or even an international player.
The game of Association Croquet is played with four coloured balls, of 1lb weight and 3 5/8 inches diameter. In singles play each player has two balls and it is his/her task to play each ball through six hoops twice in a prescribed order, making twelve hoops in all, and to hit the centre peg. A point is scored for each hoop and the peg - a game therefore consists of twenty-six points.
The hoops are made of cast iron, square topped and solidly set deep into the ground, so that they are rigidly held and do not give when hit by a ball. The shape of the hoop is that of a door frame, with two vertical sides and a horizontal cross piece. Most garden sets and many anachronistic croquet hoops in period drama on TV are made of bent wire which cannot be used in serious play. The hoops are normally set to be an eighth of an inch wider than the diameter of the ball and in top competitions the clearance is reduced to one sixteenth. The mallet weighs around three pounds. The head is most frequently made of hard wood, but modern materials such as carbon fibre are increasingly being seen; shafts may be made of wood, fibreglass, carbon-fibre or aluminium tube.
The tournament court measures 35 yards by 28 yards. The diagonal distance from corner to corner is thus almost 45 yards, but croquet can be played on smaller areas such as a tennis court.
The rules of Association Croquet allow a player to make a succession of shots in a continuous "break", during which he/she attempts to play a ball through a series of hoops. In this respect it is rather like snooker. It is a game of manoeuvre, where the choice constantly presented is between building a break or playing defensively. A break is started by a player striking a ball so that it hits one of the other three balls on the court. This earns extra shots which can be used to take position to "run" the next hoop in order. If this is indeed run, the player may again strike the ball so that it hits one of the other three balls and again may use the extra shots to attempt to run through the next hoop. A skilled player can take a ball through all of its twelve hoops in one continuous break. Great skill and accuracy are required to manoeuvre the balls accurately over such a large area (almost 1000 square yards) and to position a ball so that it can run a hoop.
The game has been described as containing some of the elements of golf, snooker and chess. It resembles golf because it is a dead ball game in which the mallet has to be swung in a controlled manner, but without muscular tension; also as in golf, the approach shot to the hoop must be accurately placed so that the ball is able to run the very narrow hoop in its next shot. It is like snooker because a ball often has to be struck so that the target ball it hits moves at a precise angle (as in potting a ball) and, furthermore, croquet balls, like snooker balls, are manoeuvred around the playing space so that they retain a favourable position to continue the break; or they may be placed defensively to make the opposition's next shot as difficult as possible. A ball can be "snookered" or, in croquet parlance, "wired" from another one by causing a hoop or the centre peg to block the line between the two.
The similarity to chess is rather more distant but, like chess, Association Croquet is a battle game in which moves have to planned several shots ahead; a player will often put a ball into a position where it will not be needed until a number of shots later.
Golf Croquet, played on the same court with the same equipment, is a simpler game both for the new player and the spectator to understand, being a game of single shots with the balls played in strict sequence. Though it does not share the Association game’s potential for break building, it too requires both accuracy of hitting and a delicacy of touch, as well great tactical awareness. It is a game which until recently has been neglected both here and in other major croquet playing countries. It has however flourished in Egypt, where top players have developed skills undreamt of elsewhere.
It is the combination of various skills and tactics which gives croquet its fascination, but what makes it really remarkable is that it can be played by all age groups. If one were to try to invent an outdoor game for the entire family, croquet in either of its forms could not be bettered.
It is an ideal game for those looking for light exercise in the open air; it requires an active mind and enables the older age groups to compete successfully against much younger players; men and women can play against each other on equal terms and tournaments are held throughout the country at which players of various abilities may compete. The handicap system to enable people of differing skill to play each other.
Those who play the game are often asked about its history. Its origin was probably in the old English game of Pell Mell, mentioned in Pepys’ diaries. It evolved into roughly its present format in Ireland in the 1830s and was introduced back to England in the 1850s, the first club being established in Evesham and a later one at Wimbledon. In the latter part of the 19th century it grew very rapidly in popularity. Then lawn tennis challenged croquet (the dimensions of the tennis court were deliberately chosen so that two would fit snugly on one croquet court). Croquet declined and a large proportion of its courts were turned over to the new game. Wimbledon, too, introduced lawn tennis....
At the height of its popularity croquet spread throughout the British Empire and this laid the foundations of the game's strongest supporters being within the present Commonwealth.
It is said that snooker probably owes its origins to croquet. A theory, supported by strong circumstantial evidence, suggests that in the rainy season in India, when croquet could not be played, an indoor version was devised. Based on the already established game of billiards, it had green baize instead of grass, six pockets instead of six hoops, multi-coloured balls were retained and the two games have much in common in terms of estimating angles, devising breaks, etc.
Croquet has enjoyed a considerable revival in recent times and the modern version of the game continues to develop rapidly. Clubs now number some 130 in England and Wales, a number of schools are now playing and enthusiasts in many countries of the world enjoy the game and take part in international events such as the World Championship and MacRobertson Shield. For bright and intelligent people, both young and old, croquet has a great deal to offer.
Details of your nearest club may be obtained from The Croquet Association, either via its website, www.croquet.org.uk,
or by telephoning 01242-242318.