Even by the standards set by the Oxford sport scene, croquet is a silly sport. This summer sees the return of teams of eager students attempt to hit balls through hoops (not the basketball kind) by swinging a mallet (not the camping kind), all accompanied by the gaze of bemused tourists and the smell of badly mixed Pimm’s.
Still, the popularity of croquet continues to remain astronomically high, with over 400 teams and 1,600 contestants entering the competition in 2015. As such, the competition once again retains the crown of the most popular sporting event of the whole year. Croquet Cuppers even claims to be the biggest collegiate sporting event in the world, attracting novice and seasoned talent alike.
With such a wide range of skills and abilities over such a vast number of teams, it is difficult to identify any runaway leaders this early in the season.
Captain Christopher Miller of Magdalen firsts enters the competition as the top seed, continuing a strong tradition of Magdalen croquet which builds on last year’s captain Peter Batley’s cup-winning team and sees them field 26 separate teams this year, though even this pales in comparison to last year’s 44 from Worcester.
Balliol also field a group of strong teams, built more off the back of their ‘great lawns and equipment rather than any actual merit,’ as one (clearly jealous) anonymous college captain says. Though there are seven rounds to go, what is clear from the opening stages is that the use of a handicap system (in league and Cuppers) allows newcomers to develop and gain confidence rapidly, with many teams of freshers now happily threatening more experienced groups.
The large number of freshers starting can be attributed to the sustained and effective efforts by the Oxford University Croquet Club to prevent people from being turned off by its apparent ridiculousness. The club encourages newcomers of every ability to start this engaging, skilful and sociable sport. With the lowest membership fee of any sport (£11 for the term, £23 for the entire summer with usage of full-size lawns and championship-grade equipment) and well-attended beginners demonstration sessions, it’s no surprise so many people play croquet when they first get to Oxford.
“Weirdly,” explains OUCC President Mark van Loon, “what keeps people playing after that initial first few games is how tactically aggressive it is – I like to think of it as a more sociable and relaxing type of chess.”
Though there is obviously a large step up between newcomers and the University team, Mark is keen to stress that the process from novice to University standard is something which can happen fairly quickly.
He tells me, “Cuppers is great for getting people involved and teaching technique, but a lot of people gain more experience by joining the university team at any level and learning how to plan their attack.” With good university players often able to limit their opponents to only one or two shots a game due to the lack of mistakes, “taking chances and staying cool under pressure is key.”
The University team seem to take this advice particularly on board, topping the local league consecutively (and earning entrance to the nationals) as well as winning the last ten varsity games on the bounce. With many university team members going on to represent the UK at the world championships, this type of dominance makes sense.
However, looking forward to this year’s match against Cambridge at the Hurlingham Club, London, van Loon is far from complacent. “We’ve lost some fantastic players this year, including previous president Harry Fisher, but we’ve been training hard and have some great talent,” including emerging star Martin Lester and a host of enthusiastic new members.
For OUCC, the future is very bright. For a sport which is barely played anywhere else in the country, the team has made a fantastic effort to include people from all colleges, years and backgrounds and are reaping the dividends, drawing upon a range of players and building a consistently competitive and strong team.