Television hasn’t been kind to croquet. Sky Sports isn’t banging on the door to invest millions and not one of even the top players has any kind of sponsorship deal. When Reg Bamford became a double world champion earlier this year, he had to fly himself to the finals in Cairo. He even had to pay to have the trophy engraved: “It’s lucky I don’t have a really long name because it would have cost even more.”
Bamford has just arrived at Roehampton sports club in London, where he is to show me why the game is more than just the summer lark it is often portrayed as. The four croquet lawns at the back of the club are immaculate but empty, save for a man in white overalls who is relacquering the boundary posts. By contrast, we have passed several busy tennis courts.
“Croquet is great fun but as a spectator sport, it’s never going to be popular like tennis or golf,” says Bamford ruefully. “It’s just fortunate there isn’t much equipment to buy – all you need are the four balls, some hoops and a good mallet.” In fact, the most difficult part of croquet for the estimated 2,500 club players in the UK is finding a large lawn flat enough to play on.
As I step on to the grass, I see that not only does it look smoother than my sitting room carpet, it is smoother. There isn’t a stray blade to be seen anywhere over an area of 35 by 28 yards – roughly twice the size of a tennis court. I assume the smoothness makes the balls run faster. “It does but this isn’t a fast lawn,” says Bamford. “You have to go to places like India or the Middle East to experience that. Games in those places really sort the men from the boys.”
Bamford has won the Association Croquet World Championships four times and next month he will attempt to win it again. In April, he won the Golf Croquet World Championship for the first time, following a heated match in Egypt. “People think croquet is Pimm’s and cucumber sandwiches but that was serious. I was playing against the local hero in the final and there was all kinds of gamesmanship going on. When I went to play a shot, somebody would ring a mobile phone to try and distract me.”
Today we are playing golf croquet, which is a simpler game than association croquet. Winning a hoop involves a player being the first to pass a ball through it – and the first player to win seven hoops takes the game. The four balls are played in the sequence of blue, red, black and yellow. My colours are blue and black, Bamford goes second and fourth with red and yellow. It sounds easy enough but immediately I notice my opponent has an advantage.
The champion has brought his personal mallet along and it looks as if it could have been designed by Nasa. Unlike the wooden mallets you find in those box sets at country house hotels, this one is made of carbon fibre, has a metal tip at each end of the block and is beautifully balanced. It cost a modest £260 and Bamford sportingly offers to let me take my shots using it. Not surprisingly as it turns out, it doesn’t make the slightest difference to the result.
Bamford, 45, lives in Putney and runs a company helping expats settle into new countries. He was seven when he took up the sport in his native South Africa. “I became totally obsessed and would train at the Rondebosch Club in Cape Town for six hours a day. I was there so much that my father had to ban me from playing for a year because he thought I was going to fail my exams. Nowadays I don’t practise at all – I’m not going to learn any new tricks.”
My first shot from the baulk line with the blue ball travels about 12 yards, woefully short of the hoop. Bamford then bends low over the mallet and sends his red within a yard of the target, while my black again falls short. His yellow also stops short of the red ball but is perfectly placed to block my two balls from knocking his out of the way. Then my second shot with the blue is struck too hard and disappears off the lawn, leaving Bamford a clear strike through the first hoop and into a 1-0 lead.
I can feel my competitive streak surfacing but this pattern continues hoop after hoop. Bamford can see my frustration and points out that he has been trained to cope with the pressure. “I have two coaches who help me with the mental side of the game because it’s mind over mallet in croquet. One is a sports psychologist who helped England win the Rugby World Cup. He has taken my game to a new level.”
Right now, I doubt I would have beaten Bamford when he was a seven-year-old. Then, on the fifth point, I manage to strike my blue ball within a foot of the hoop, blocking his red from a winning shot about a yard away. I’m certain Bamford is going to cannon his ball into mine and send me off the lawn, ricocheting his red through the hoop. Instead, he takes aim, whacks the red at its base and leapfrogs my blue, sending his ball over and on through the hoop.
“The jump shot looks spectacular but it’s actually quite simple,” explains Bamford. “The problem is keeping control of the ball once it has landed. There is also a risk of taking a large chunk out of the green.” I’m not too bothered about controlling the ball but the thought of explaining to the groundsman how I took a divot out of his lawn stops me short from trying myself.
By the seventh hoop it’s all over and I have been trounced. Bamford is confident he is ready for next month’s championships, where he aims to win his sixth world title. While his wife Adrienne has accepted her role as a croquet widow, would he be happy to see one of his two sons, Oliver or Alex, take up the sport?
“If I’m honest, the answer is no. That’s because I know the hours of training they will have to put in to make it to the top. As much as I love the game, croquet is insular and quirky. I’d be much happier if they played rugby or just enjoyed a sport that’s a bit more mainstream. Perhaps one that might even pay for their kit.”
The 2013 World Croquet Championship takes place at four clubs in the London area from August 10 to 18; www.acwc2013.org for details.