Jason Goodwin: ‘Even when repeated 20 times, “The ball was in!” won’t cut it on the croquet lawn.’

Our Spectator columnist ponders the really big questions as he discusses life, death and croquet.

It must be summer. Those unidentified seedlings I absent-mindedly scattered through the border have turned out to be definitely Italian parsley and the alliums are staked against the beating rain. Before the strawberries, and with the late asparagus, the pods are swelling on the Early Onward and my birthday is in the offing.

The clincher, however, is the opening of the tournament season: the lawn, the hype, the prospect of tears and jubilation and the sound of furious argument drifting in the evening air.

I knew it was coming when Izzy sanded and repainted the hoops while Harry took a bucket of grass seed mixed with soil and crawled over the lawn filling in holes and removing plantains with a bone-handled knife. They may get it flatter and finer at Wimbledon, but we country sportsmen and women like turf with a bit of character, where the odd bump or slope adds to the excitement of the game and every blemish improves one’s chances of crying foul.

‘Only 10 years ago, it was accepted practice around here to adjust the position of the ball with your foot if you thought no one would notice.’

John McEnroe tried to bring croquet behaviour to lawn tennis, but it doesn’t work. Once you’ve argued if a tennis ball is in – or out – you’ve used up your options. In croquet, you can argue about everything, such as whether the ball is quite through the hoop, if it’s acceptable to wiggle the hoop at all and was it fair to make that sudden loud noise, just when your opponent was about to take the crucial stroke?

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Even when repeated 20 times in a row, ‘The ball was in!’ won’t cut it on the croquet lawn.

Times change, of course. Only 10 years ago, it was accepted practice around here to adjust the position of the ball with your foot if you thought no one would notice. When they did and raised objections, you were meant to simply brazen it out, deny everything and, as a last resort, agree in injured tones to nudge the ball halfway back.

We had all the boys home on Sunday afternoon and we split into pairs for the first major contest of the season. Izzy is all-round favourite. He played for his college and the years of extracurricular practice have made him something of an expert on the rules and terms of the game, like bisque for a free shot, a break for getting through several hoops in one turn and a peel for sending another ball through a hoop. His play is accurate and ruthless.

playing croquet on garden lawn, norfolk, england

Izzy paired up with Harry, who’s a demon for the long shot and also keeps up a lively commentary, and Walter got me. Walter has had training on a college lawn, although he’s a little out of practice; he goes for a crisp, clean shot and likes to surround his opponents with witty trash talk.

As for me, these days, I’m seen as unreliable, with old-fashioned views on surreptitious footwork and a tendency to go wide on simple shots.

At one point, however, I struck the ball hard across the diagonal, aiming for a distant hoop, and had the satisfaction of watching as it curved unexpectedly and struck my partner’s ball lying beyond. Everyone else was so dumbfounded by the brilliant croquet that it was left to me to joke that I’d really been aiming for the hoop, thereby ruling that out as a possibility and letting the croquet look intentional. That’s called making the best of things.

I was the Man of the Match for a few minutes and although, bafflingly, Walter and I eventually lost, it was pretty close-run. Plus our opponents pulled a trick or two, which allowed us to ruefully protest, in time-honoured fashion, that even though they might technically might have won the game, the moral victory was plainly ours.

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