Life Divided: Croquet

Akshay Bilolikar and Esme Ash weigh up the pros and cons of croquet, from all angles

For: Akshay Bilolikar

It’s the first swing, but also the final. It’s that almost intractable angle hiding in plain sight on an Oxford college lawn. It’s the croquet bug: an insatiable seasonal desire to pick up the mallet, set up the court, and hit wooden balls through hoops. Between shots, there’s conferral with your partner. Grand and arcane schemes are orchestrated. Your vision must compete with your opponent’s if you’re to master the court. Little, if anything, ever goes to plan. Perhaps the sun is in your eye, but in any case you can’t quite master the angle on that last shot.

The game isn’t lost yet. There’s still possibility, even if it’s only in reach with a healthy dose of Lady Luck. One hoop behind, it’s not yet over. Two, a triumph becomes distant, yet almost within reach. On the third, there’s no way to win except to take—ruthlessly—all the opportunities your opponent gives you. Half the time, the game ends there—the leader’s advantage is not easily waived. Just often enough, however, the golden window presents itself. Jumping through the window of opportunity to snatch success from the jaws of defeat. Strategic thought, almost like chess on grass, to match your opponent on the court.

And yet, the croquet bug is not solely an infection of the mind: it’s an infection of the soul, one rooted in the summer air and the scent of the good months ahead. The game always takes longer than you allocated it time. You inevitably have to deputise to hold your place. Frustration mounts, pitilessly, but it never overwhelms because the balance of possibilities will, one day, swing in your favour. Day after day, you find yourself returning to the court. Some of your friends—the immune ones, who don’t see the possibility at play between the hoops—will balk at the hours you spend in the summer sun doing little more than hitting balls through hoops. And yet, you’ve got the bug, and you’re doing so much more

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Against: Esmé Ash

Croquet? Seriously? You’d be forgiven for mistaking this pointless game as a tasty snack (see croquettes), but for some unfathomable reason, the tradition of whacking balls with sticks à la Alice in Wonderland—minus the flamingos—hasn’t died out when it really should have by now, along with boater hats and braces.

There are lots of wonderful eccentricities that are part of the fabric of college life, but croquet does not earn its place in the hall of fame for three reasons. Firstly, the “sport” (if you could call it that) is inherently unfair. No matter how flat the quad, it’s never a level playing field when cuppers rolls around because prime time for practising is invariably Trinity term, when anyone who has exams, or studies a real degree, is too busy for such frivolity.

Meanwhile, hordes of E&M students spend hours honing their skills, Pimm’s in hand, ready to crush the opposition within minutes of setting up those little hoops on the grass. No, I don’t know what they’re called—and any self-respecting student won’t know, either. But, sore losing aside, the institution of croquet and its association with Oxford is just another stereotype we have to fight, to break the misconception that we all wear red trousers and pinstripe blazers. “What’s so special that means they can play on the grass?”, prospective students wonder as they skirt the quads.

The format of the game leaves little room for mistakes, too, dissuading even the bravest of timid freshers from stepping up and having a go in case they ruin a team’s winning streak. Finally, Oxford in the summer is a beautiful thing to behold—and there are so many other things you can do which lie beyond the well-groomed lawns of your particular college.

Try rowing, punting, touring colleges, and venturing out to Cowley, Jericho or another quirky corner of the city. Croquet is a spectator sport, best served with strawberries and cream.