Playing with Mallets
Welcome to the Brutal, Take-No-Prisoners World of Competitive Croquet
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96
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With the USCA on the scene, the backyard game and the sport came to a definitive parting of the ways. Association croquet required specialized equipment and facilities. The short-handled mallet typical of backyard croquet sets proved inadequate, requiring as it did a hunched, unnatural shooting position and often being cheaply made with a pronounced tendency to warp. Long-handled mallets, such as those supplied since 1795 to British players by the firm of John Jaques & Son Ltd., offered superior shot making and ball control. Plus, they were handsomely made by craftsmen out of lignum vitae or boxwood, both exceptionally durable woods. (Jaques remains the premier name in croquet equipment; many players would no more appear on the court with a non-Jaques mallet than they would in blue jeans.)
One of the most important items on the USCA agenda, however, was to codify the basic principles of play for the American game. Set into stone were previously slippery issues such as the dimensions of the regulation court, wicket size and proper attire. Henceforth, a USCA-sanctioned game would be played on a court 105 feet in length and 84 feet wide, with round-iron wickets five-eighths of an inch in diameter, 12 inches in height and not less than 3 11/16th inches nor more than four inches wide on the inside dimension. Balls would be made of compressed cork with a plastic overlay to a precise diameter of 3 5/8 inches and a weight of 16 ounces (plus or minus three-fourths of an ounce). And players would wear all white apparel, please, unless otherwise approved by the USCA event chairman, which was and is damned unlikely.
That done, they moved on to the rules. In the simplest terms possible, a match in six wicket croquet is played in either a singles or doubles format. A player or team hits or "strikes" either the red and yellow balls or the blue and black. (There are no other combinations or colors in six wicket--no green or brown, for example, and, for that matter, no pink or fuchsia, either.) Blue hits first, followed by red, then black, then yellow.
The balls are played through the number one wicket, then the number two and so on. Upon reaching and scoring the number six wicket the direction of play is reversed, until the center stake is played and the ball becomes "staked out." Which sounds a lot easier than it is; considering that the wickets are, after all, only about 1/16th of an inch wider on each side than the ball--the thickness of a dime--and that it's said the sun can cause the black ball to swell enough to make it stick in the wicket, it seems an achievement that a player ever completes a round.
Be that as it may, a player is limited to one shot per turn unless he or she scores a wicket or 'roquets' (strikes) another ball. Scoring a wicket is rewarded with a "continuation" stroke, a "roquet" with two strokes--a "croquet" and a "continuation" stroke. Once you've roqueted a ball you're "dead" on it and you can't strike it again until you've "cleaned" yourself by scoring another wicket. Each wicket played is worth two points, as is the stake, for a total of 26 points. The first team or player to reach 26 points wins the match. A player can, and will, combine the opening stroke with roquet, croquet and continuation shots, thereby scoring numerous points during a single turn.
While it may sound simple enough, it most assuredly is not. For in croquet the most important part of the game is the players' grasp of strategy and the ability to think a dozen shots in advance. The race through the wickets becomes an exercise in Euclidean geometry played with live ammunition when you consider every possible ramification of each possible shot. Being dead on one or more balls can dramatically alter the game. "When you're three-ball dead," Zanuck once ruefully observed, "you're just a useless bum."
The terrible-tempered Mr. Bang knows whereof he spoke: A lack of careful planning can leave a player out in the cold. Solid defense, something which can be easily overlooked, can be the most critical of tactical considerations. Present the opposition with a good "leave" and it may be your undoing, something that translates into the fact that it's occasionally more important to harass, annoy and obstruct your opponent than it is to score points.
The best players quickly develop both nerves of steel and something else: "It helps to have a sadistic streak," one observer remarked of match play. "When somebody misses a shot or makes a mistake, that's the time to jump in and crush them." The manner in which all this is best appreciated, however, is in the playing. An abstract understanding of the importance of good defense is one thing; it's quite another to stand there and watch your ball get knocked the length of the court by an opponent who looks up from the shot with an unseemly grin on his face.
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