The sun is obscured by a blanket of cloud, there are several empty pitchers littered with browning fruit slices and freshers with wooden mallets are staggering across the quads without arousing the wrath of the porters. Yes, it can mean only one thing- that the British Summer is here, and with it, the fine game of croquet.
As a state school kid from suburbia, the game of croquet has always struck me as something of a joke. When trying to think of the most ridiculous sport imaginable, croquet would often come to mind (2nd only to Polo, in that at least croquet didn’t utilise equine locomotion). To my unwitting mind, the game simply consisted of the upper classes rambling around a lawn in tweed blazers, knocking brightly coloured balls through hoops in some seemingly unintelligible fashion. The aim of the sport was quite beyond me, a pursuit too distantly surreal from my own lifestyle for me to ever care for it, let alone want to play it.
Fast forward to Oxford, some arm twisting in the college bar after a few drinks and the promise of a lazy “sport” which many involves quaffing gin based spirits. I have become an overnight convert to this summer pursuit. Speaking of which, the game is essentially that- a pursuit of one team’s balls against another’s, to try and pass through a circuit of hoops before the other team in a specified route, in order to hit a peg in the middle of the pitch and win. The game sounds simple enough- at this stage. However, players win extra shots by hitting another a ball, in a similar way to which extra turns in snooker or pool work. Therefore, a tactical game of positioning, to build as many shots as possible in a row to help you through the hoops, through extra goes hitting your own balls, as well as those of your opponent, are required. As such, croquet is not merely just a game of skill, like some kinds of drink related game. It is not like a posh darts or pool or bare knuckle brawl. Rather it has the cognitive finesse of chess, draughts, or cheating on a quiz machine (although for those of us familiar with latter, know the common utility of a mallet in play.)
However, the real fun in the sport is the attitude with which it is played. Leisurely, with sly tactics and backhanded aggression, the game comes to life in a mix of skill, tactics and psychological banter that make it genuinely fun and eminently social. It is a very simple game to get to grips with, but very tough to master. And that’s without the inevitable home rules to account for different pitches. Whilst some may have perfectly smooth, pristine croquet lawns, others of us have to get use to dips and divots- not to mention wells and walls- all of which add to the charm of a game as you watch your opponents struggling to straddle a fence!
So, with summer here upon us, Cuppers is now well under way. What better way to lose yourself in the mystique of Oxford legend, day-dreaming of Alice’s own experiences of the sport in Wonderland, than to give the game a try? Well, at least that’s what I thought. How my illustrious SPC 8 shall do, against the slightly more illustrious SPC 7 in the most homogeneous draw in history, we will have to see. Somehow though, I don’t think we’ll go down in the annals of croquet history. Instead, I’ll make sure to bring along my anorak, a pitcher of the same from Sainsbury’s (for those of you who know your cheaper alternatives to popular summer fruit drinks served with fruit and lemonade!) and a good excuse to explain to give the porters to explain mallet marks on the quad. We were just playing whack a mole, honest.
There ya go!