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Tales of the Unexpected

If a lone magpie flies out of a hedge within a mile of your home, should you turn back? Say you’re  a very inexperienced croquet player going to an event alarmingly called Champion of Champions. The winner of your club’s relevant qualifier didn’t fancy it. The beaten finalist is a schoolteacher.  The conquerer in the third place play off is representing another club. Blewbury Croquet Club must have had  doubts about nominating the losing semi finalist from the AC handicap internal Prebendal Cup: that’s me. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to turn back, but I didn’t.

Tournament play for early learners comes with conflicting possibilities. Should you haemorrhage bisques to set up the sacred four ball break,the best way of taking your first ball from hoop one to hoop 12? If - or rather when - you break down,  you’ll present your opponent with the perfect layout.

The four ball break can so easily spiral to  defeat. The experts promote it diligently: why wouldn’t they? In a not very distant future, they’ll be devouring  the  balls you’ve placed so carefully to ease your progress: at the hoops, their balls won’t touch the sides. You’ll be starved of lawn time until their first clip is on the peg. Your second bite at the cherry induces bisque fever. Use them and lose them as the opponent’s second ball sweeps imperiously towards the winning post.

Is there scope for another approach? Given sufficiently awkward placements, skilled opponents may miss. They may get rattled and miss again. Think about using bisques to set challenges or traps. Enticement is integral to croquet. Impose a bisque curfew when you’re down to three. The nervous finisher needs a cushion for the end game:  walk away rather than falling on your sword. Be patient. You may be surprised at the result

The Southern Croquet Federation’s  Champions Day took place at Hamptworth, part of a golf complex south of Salisbury. Chris Roberts, from Phyllis Court, did the honours,  matching opponents using randomly drawn playing cards. ‘Please don’t let it be Aston Wade’, I muttered.

Then aged8  20, the medical student from Exeter University was already Britain’s GC champion and a croquet legend.

The gods listened and delivered  a scratch player from the Isle of Wight locked  into a start from hell.  Later in the day, he would live up to his handicap, but not before11am. Next up a wily operator who took no prisoners. In the afternoon, two time out victories against superior talent. Then the astonishing announcement: the final between Aston Wade, unbeaten with four wins, and Minty Clinch, with three. Despite the discrepancy, whoever won the final would lift the trophy. It wasn’t me. A travesty if it had been because Aston and I are on different planets, but it was closer than you’d expect.

Next up, tuition, a residential course hosted by Cliff Jones, at the progressive Newport Croquet Club and the Premier Inn in Saffron Walden.  Over three sunny April days, I and my 11 fellow travellers learned a lot from a man who knows it all. Implementing it back home resulted in a spectacular dip in form.

Is that surprising? Realigned feet, lowered eyes -  ‘see the ball miss, hear it hit’ - works,  but only when meticulously observed. Re read the notes, set up the shots, hope graft will trigger craft. Head for  another tournament to see if it has . Mine was the  Latham Cup,  hosted by Bristol Croquet Club, a  city sophisticate  with three flat immaculate courts and classy facilities. No time limits here: peg out is the only goal.

The organiser Is Dave Kibble, scratch, local, in charge, so naturally I drew him first. Lunch came and went as we played on and on. My nine hour stint ended as the sun set over the Bristol Channel. A loss to Dave, and two wins. The reality check came the next day: two more losses that might have been wins without clumsy basics.

Cheltenham’s Wendy Wu took home handsome silverware donated back in 1981. Her strategies were unorthodox and creative, her execution dazzlingly crisp. Plenty of food for thought….


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