Janette Wolf discovers that croquet isn't as genteel as she thought.
As a child, I spent years as an Olympic medallist-in-waiting. I was waiting mainly for a horse that was bigger than the fences it would be expected to clear on our path to glory, which mine conspicuously wasn't. But I'm sure I wasn't alone. There can't be many of us who have not harboured some sort of sporty longing, whether it is to pull on an England shirt, score a perfect 10 on the beam, or scream past the chequered flag at Brands Hatch.
One thing I certainly never dreamed of doing, for my country or anything else, was playing croquet. Which is a bit of shame because it's one of the few sports the British can claim to have invented and still be any good at. We are, in fact, the world champions. Just think, if I had started young enough, I could have been a real contender.
Instead, I must content myself with what might have been as I turn up for an introduction to the sport at no less a venue than the sumptiously grand Hurlingham Club in London SW6. Here are 40 acres of tennis courts of every description (indoor, outdoor, grass, not-grass), cricket pitches and SIX croquet lawns, all nicely punctuated by tinkling fountains, striped marquees and herbaceous borders.
Croquet has, to my mind at least, a rather stereotypical image. It begins and ends with a Merchant Ivory production, probably starring Helena Bonham Carter and is set somewhere that looks, well, just like The Hurlingham. It is played nonchalantly by ladies in moire silk on lawns manicured by armies of hump-backed gardeners.
But believe me, nonchalance doesn't even enter into it, as this and all my other misconceptions are swiftly dispelled by the non-moire-clad secretary of the Croquet Association, and my coach for the day, Paul Campion. "You're getting a very unrealistic picture of croquet by starting here," he tells me, just as I begin to revel in the grandeur of my surroundings. "There are clubs all over the country that have nothing like these facilities." What, no striped marquees? Illusion number one is rudely shattered.
Further notions of croquet being a game for girlies are also sent packing as soon as I pick up a mallet. It weighs a ton. The prospect of using one to propel large, heavy balls through a hoop, let alone any distance, seems increasingly unlikely. As the sun beats down on my head, I wish for something really useful like a parasol but have to start concentrating instead, as Paul begins to explain the inexplicable.
We are to play association croquet. There are several other forms, including a simple, knock-about version called golf croquet that can be mastered in minutes, but that version is not for purists like us. Ours is "a cross between chess and snooker", according to Paul.
All I can tell you is that it is incredibly complicated. The object, as far as I understand it, is to progress your ball through a series of hoops until you reach a totem-pole thing in the middle. Game won. Sounds simple, doesn't it? You have no idea.
You can play either singles or doubles and you take turns with your opponent. A turn equals one "stroke". You keep going if your stroke a) sends your ball through a hoop or b) hits another ball. This is known as a "roquet". After a roquet you have to play a "croquet", when you place your ball next to the one you have just hit and hit it again. You continue in this sequence until you miss and then it's the other team's go again.
That is a potted, rather inadequate description because croquet is so much more than the sum of its parts. It is primarily a game of strategy and tactics - players seem less interested in getting their balls through the hoops than in making sure their opponents are completely out on a limb. I consider myself marooned in the latter category as I keep mixing up my roquets with my croquets. And that's before we get to physics.
"Don't hit the ball there, hit it here," advises Paul. "But I don't want it to go left, I want it to go straight," I say puzzled. "It will," he assures me. But how does he know? "Physics. If the angle between the two balls is pointing in the direction you want yours to go, it will. Even if you hit it to the left." And sure enough, it does.
During the morning, we practise several shots over and over again. Getting it right is enormously satisfying - the resounding thunk of mallet on ball, the latter's sprint across the lawn, and look, inches from where it's supposed to be, hurrah! When it finally squeezes through a hoop (and it's a very tight fit), I allow myself several vulgar bursts of congratulation.
After lunch the real test of the morning's instruction begins. Paul and I are to play a proper game of doubles with two of Paul's regular croquet adversaries. This is rather alarming, but there is a handicap system that should, in theory, cancel out my inexperience.
The pace is infinitely faster than in the morning. Croquets follow roquets and we criss-cross the lawn at bewildering speed. Paul asks me if the game is beginning to make sense. "Yes," I lie. He also tells me that in some games players can walk up to five miles. On this, the hottest day of the year, I pray this is not going to be one of them.
After a couple of hours we find ourselves in the lead. I wish I could claim this is down to my innate brilliance with the mallet, that after all these years I have found my true sporting vocation. The truth is more prosaic. Our opponents have generously allowed me to take extra goes when I ask for them or politely look away when I miss altogether. Such extraordinary sporting behaviour is, they assure me afterwards, quite unheard of in a normal game.
I won't be playing croquet for England, in my dreams or otherwise, but it is an intriguing and absorbing sport. Apparently, we all live near a club, so maybe I'll check mine out. That's if I can bring myself to visit a club that doesn't have six lawns and a striped marquee.
The Croquet Association exists to promote the game and to keep members in touch with developments nationwide. It runs tournaments, courses and conferences and has equipment for sale. A year's full membership costs Pounds 25. Most clubs offer coaching sessions for new players free or at minimal cost. Mallets cost from Pounds 56 upwards. For further information and advice contact, Paul Campion, secretary, The Croquet Association, co The Hurlingham Club, Ranelagh Gardens, London SW6 3PR. Telfax: 0171 736 3148.E-mail: email@example.com