Culture

The beginner's guide to the greatest pastimes: Croquet

From the beauty of the equipment to the romance of the garden, it’s the perfect way to spend an afternoon

From the beauty of the equipment to the romance of the garden, it’s the perfect way to spend an afternoon

(Creative: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A lawn is required to enjoy croquet. And for enthusiasts, croquet is required to truly enjoy a lawn. The game is leisurely but engaging, playful but competitive. The pace is perfect for a sunny afternoon when you aren't inclined to work up a sweat. 

The game can be played in backyards, in parks, or even on the beach. There are also dedicated croquet clubs across Canada where you can learn and enjoy the game in a social setting. 

Jim Wright, president of the North Toronto Croquet Club and international competitor explained that croquet offers different charms to different players. In his words, "Croquet has the precision of golf, the strategy of chess and the angles of billiards." Older people are often drawn to it as a physical activity that does not require too much jumping or running. In fact, Wright fell in love with the game while recovering from a back injury. Some love the analytical aspect of croquet which involves a combination of strategy, geometry, and killer instinct. For others, says Wright, croquet is a head-to-head psychological contest. Even though serious international competition exists in croquet, its accessibility is part of its charm. It's an easy game to learn and beginners can have fun with it right away. Here's how to get started. 

History

Croquet appeared in England around 1851. It belongs to a group of games called "ground billiards" which includes games like golf, trucco, and pall-mall that have been popular in Europe since at least the middle ages. The game was an immediate hit. English lawns are among the lushest on earth, so the terrain was ripe for a croquet takeover. In fact, the club that hosts the famous tennis tournament at Wimbledon was originally founded as a croquet club and only later changed its name to the "All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club." The game soon spread throughout the empire and remains popular in Anglophone countries such as Canada, Australia, and the US.

The Earl of Essex was famous for lavish croquet parties in the 1860s. But as many other popular amusements, croquet also came under moral suspicion. In 1898, Living Age magazine described the game as a "source of slumbering depravity, a veritable Frankenstein monster of recreation." The author suggested that "it would be well if the enthusiasm of the clergy and laity were enlisted for suppressing the immoral practice of croquet." What made croquet such a source of turpitude? As historian Jon Sterngass explains, croquet was a very popular context of socializing between genders. As a character in Charlotte Yonge's The Clever Women of the Family (1865) put it, young people were using croquet "as an engine for flirtation." 

While the initial popularity of the game somewhat subsided when lawn tennis became popular, it is still played around the world, including in clubs and in cottage yards across Canada.

What you need to know to get started

To get started, you need some understanding of the rules and technique of croquet. The main form of the game is called "association croquet" (explained here), but other simplified variations such as "golf" and "American 9-wicket" are also widely played. 

The object of the game is for each player (or team) to hit a pair of balls through six metal arches (wickets) twice (once in each direction) and finishing the course by striking a peg.

At the beginning of each turn, the player may strike either of their two balls. The object is to either pass through the next hoop or to hit another ball (hitting another ball is called a "roquet"). If the ball goes through a wicket, the player gets an extra stroke, called a "continuation stroke." If the ball strikes another ball, the player gets two extra strokes. The first is called a "croquet stroke" and is played by placing the ball in contact with the ball that was struck and then hitting it again. The ball that it is placed against must moved as a result of the croquet stroke, or the turn ends. After the croquet stroke, the player gets a continuation stroke as well to try to get through a hoop or strike another ball.

After the ball has passed through all the wickets (a total of twelve), the player then plays for the peg. When the ball strikes the peg, it is removed from the game. When both balls of one team are removed, the game ends. One point is scored for every wicket passed and for each peg struck, for a total of 26 points.

Full rules are available here and a handy synopsis here.

As for technique, there are several common ways to grip a mallet, which are summarized here. However, the main thing is that you are comfortable and have control over the mallet. Pick any grip that feels natural.  

There are two main ways of swinging a mallet. The simplest is to swing it in a pendulum between one's legs while facing in the direction that you wish to hit the ball. We recommend this technique especially for beginners. However many players also hit the ball sideways, particularly if they are more accustomed to golf or baseball. Here is a video demonstration from expert village of both techniques.

What you need to have to get started

A croquet set and suitable playing surface are the only essential elements of the game. Official croquet pitches are 35x28 yards, twice the size of a tennis court. However, the game is easily adapted to much smaller surfaces. When adjusting to a smaller space, remember that the ratio of the sides of the pitch is 5:4.

Croquet sets include mallets, balls, wickets, and pegs. Sets can be had at Canadian Tire for as low as $34.99, but you'll notice a real difference when playing with higher quality equipment. Jaques of London, a British games company, is the traditional purveyor of croquet equipment in the game's home country. John Jaques II helped stoke the original croquet craze in the 19th century, and Lewis Carroll, who wrote possibly the most famous literary croquet scene in Alice in Wonderland, was a relation to the Jaques family. They offer basic sets from £110 up to the luxury Sandringham set, currently on sale for £5000.

If you are planning to go for the full English-garden vibe, you may also need Pimm's and cucumber or egg and cress sandwiches cut into small triangles. 

What you need to do to get started

The first thing you need to do is to set up the wickets and peg. Here is a diagram for the layout of the wickets. Once you've done it a couple of times, it's easy to remember.

Then you choose teams and flip a coin. The winner of the toss decides whether they will take the choice of lead (who plays first) or the choice of balls (blue and black or red and yellow). Whoever has choice of lead decides who plays first, which is done by placing either of their balls on the baulk line and playing it onto the pitch. Each player must put a ball in play on their turn until all four balls are in play. After this, the striker can choose to begin their turn with either ball.

Top tips

  • Watch the ball: Wright's number one tip in croquet may sound obvious, but many beginners take their eye off the ball and look up at the target. Don't do this. Take aim and when it's time to swing, don't take your eye off the ball. 

  • KEEP YOUR TEMPER: Written in bold caps, this was Milton Bradley's first "suggestion to beginners." It remains good advice. Awkwardly knocking balls over bumpy lawns can be a recipe for frustration, especially when things get competitive. Remember to breathe.

  • Start with the between-the-legs swing: You'll achieve greater accuracy looking straight down at the ball rather than hitting it sidelong.

  • Set-up: Stand over the ball with the ball under your chin and your feet pointing in the direction you want to ball to go.

  • Start soft: When setting up a ball to score a wicket (go through a hoop) beginners will have more success if they aim a few feet ahead of the wicket and lay it up to score on the next shot. If you try to put it too close, there's a good chance you'll wind up on the wrong side of the wicket.

  • Think ahead: Croquet is as much a game of position and strategy as a game of skill. Try not to leave your ball close to your opponent's balls at the end of your turn because that will make it easy for them to play off of. 

  • Mind your manners: Competition can get heated, but Wright reminded us it's usually more important to get along with your fellow players than to win any particular match. He cited the old saying that "long after everyone has forgotten who has won the game, we all remember the idiot they played with." Wright noted that stronger-language variations of this saying are common.


Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.

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