CRAIG BROWN: Warning – don't play croquet in front of the telly

CRAIG BROWN: Warning – don’t play croquet in front of the telly

One of the most surprising beneficiaries of the current crisis is the game of croquet.

The Croquet Association reports a 110 per cent rise in sales of croquet sets, along with a surge in inquiries from people wanting to join croquet clubs. 

Meanwhile, John Lewis has apparently sold 600 per cent more croquet sets than during the same period last year.

More and more people are turning up to play croquet in lockdown – there have been a 110 per cent rise in sales of croquet sets and interest in joining the local club is growing 

Unlike most other sports, croquet allows competitors to maintain their distance. 

This is why it has always been favoured by the shy, the frosty, the standoffish and those who like to keep any sort of physical contact to the bare minimum.

For this reason, I imagine the majority of Croquet Association members will vote to keep the temporary lockdown rules of no post-match handshakes and no shared mallets. Of all the sports, it has always been the least touchy-feely.

It is also the most discreet. The last time it made the headlines was back in 2006, when the then deputy prime minister, John Prescott, was photographed enjoying a game of croquet at his grace-and-favour country house when he was meant to be standing in for Tony Blair.

Prescott had long been regarded as Blair’s token representative of the working class. There were immediate calls for him to resign, mainly from those who associated croquet with the upper classes.

It was almost as if he had been spotted on a grouse moor with Nicholas Soames, or sharing a bottle of bubbly with the cast of Made In Chelsea.

There is, as it happens, no reason why croquet should be seen as the preserve of the wealthy. 

Croquet requires less space than football or rugby, and a croquet set is a lot cheaper than a bicycle.

While croquet is often deemed to be associated with upper classes, you need less space to play the sport compared to football or rugby, with a croquet set much cheaper than a bicycle 

A rough version of croquet can be played for no financial outlay whatsoever. During the lockdown, the Croquet Association has encouraged people to play at home using household objects. 

One woman posted a video of herself online playing in her living room, using a broomstick to hit a ball through a hoop formed from two mugs and a salt shaker.

Nevertheless, a round of croquet in one’s living room comes with peril, not least because, even in the most spacious surroundings, it can lead to fierce arguments. 

In terms of contentiousness, croquet is second only to all-in wrestling. A reasonably fierce game could leave the average living room in tatters.

Why does croquet so often lead to arguments? One reason is that no one seems to have read a rulebook. 

This means that everyone insists on following their own rules, even if they are at odds with those of other players.

So, for instance, some people say that if you hit a ball off the pitch, you can put it back on by a mallet’s length, while others claim you can only put it back on by the length of the head of a mallet.

Some maintain that you lose a go if you hit an opponent’s ball off the pitch, while others say it makes no difference. 

Like most sports, croquet does come with its controversies – the rulebook changes according to each player’s preferences, which leads to arguments on the pitch

There are those who insist that if you hit the post by mistake, you must go back to the beginning, while others are convinced it doesn’t matter. And so on. Small wonder that this most stately of games so often concludes with a barrage of abuse.

Experienced players have noticed something innately competitive about croquet, even when they are playing against themselves. 

The late Roy Jenkins — former Chancellor of the Exchequer, President of the European Commission, Chancellor of Oxford University and so on — once wrote about his solo games of croquet, ‘playing all four balls by myself, which at least avoided the tedium of waiting for others’.

He had, he said, become particularly intrigued by ‘the curious fact that one’s loyalties became attached to red and yellow, or less frequently to black and blue, which made it difficult to try equally hard with the unfavoured pair of balls, and at the end of the session the very limited satisfaction to be gained from victory over oneself’.

Throughout the croquet world, competitiveness among players can lead to accusations of vindictiveness, particularly when, for no reason at all, you blast your opponent’s ball to kingdom come and he then decides to take it personally. 

This could be additionally problematic in a living room, particularly if a television set, a vase, and a selection of precious ornaments are in the target area.

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