Croquet: Beyond Pimm's

Cambridge University Association Croquet Club presidents, Rob Thorman and Tony Williams

“It’s a gentle sport that combines strategy and physical skill,” the club’s website says. “Nevertheless be under no illusions – at the higher reaches of the sport it can be mentally exhausting and psychologically brutal.”

Charlie Troman for CAM

The sport is croquet and the mental exhaustion isn’t a euphemism for the after-effects of too much Pimm’s and too much sun, although for many students they might be part of the sport’s attraction.

Rob Thorman and Tony Williams joined the University Croquet Club in search of respite from revision. “When we started last year it was quite light-hearted, a fun thing to do in the exam term,” Tony says, “but gradually we’ve started to take it more seriously.

“Croquet is accessible because beginners can play simpler versions of the rules, but Association Croquet – which is what we play competitively – is a very hard game to master.

“It’s like pool and snooker. Pool is very accessible and is something anyone can play. Snooker uses the same basic mechanisms but is a much harder, more strategic game so it’s an apt analogy for how Association Croquet relates to the game you play with the family over a jug of Pimm’s in the back garden,” Tony explains.

What makes a good croquet player is a strategic brain and physical precision, says Rob: “Unlike other sports you don’t need to put the hours in at the gym. In croquet you can be competitive without having to commit your whole life to it, but you need to be good at both the strategy and long-distance hitting.”

Rob and Tony, who are both reading Classics, think croquet’s strategic side attracts a certain kind of student. “A lot of croquet players at Cambridge are scientists or mathematicians – the strategy of the game definitely appeals to that kind of mind – so we are quite unusual in that respect,” says Tony.

Having started playing croquet for a bit of fun, a year on the pair are in charge of the Croquet Club and determined to help grow the sport at Cambridge.

Last year’s croquet Cuppers – the intercollegiate competition – attracted 160 players from 40 college teams, and Rob and Tony want to build on 2010’s success.

“Joel Taylor, last year’s president, was extremely proactive in promoting the Croquet Club. He found it in a state of complete disrepair and last year put a huge effort into publicising it,” says Rob. “He was really good at encouraging people who’d never played before to come and have a bit of a knock about, as well as taking on people who wanted to play more seriously.”

By giving people a taste of playing croquet by the advanced rules, Cuppers is an important way of cultivating grassroots croquet and improving Cambridge’s chances in the Varsity Match.

“If we had more established grassroots in the University, and can foster Cuppers, perhaps in a few years we’ll be able to get on terms with Oxford,” says Rob.

Held at the Hurlingham Club in London each June, the Varsity Match has been a rather one-sided affair in recent years, Oxford winning every match since 2003.

“We get hammered,” Rob says. “We got a record result last year – losing 7–2 instead of the usual 9–0. That’s the best Cambridge has done for a while. But Oxford has proper courts, whereas we just have to find the flattest bit of lawn.”

“We use college lawns – scholars’ or fellows’ gardens – which have well-kept grass but we don’t have any dedicated facilities unlike Oxford, which has two croquet courts. It’s a bigger sport there and a more established set-up,” says Tony.

Whatever the Cambridge croquet team achieves this year at the Hurlingham Club, Rob and Tony hope they can encourage more students to put down their books and take up a mallet for a couple of hours.

“Croquet’s played during the Easter term, when everyone’s really busy with revision, so it provides some light-hearted relief and an hour or two in the sun,” says Tony.

It’s an opportunity not to be missed, says Rob: “This is the only place you’ll have these grand buildings and these flat lawns and people who are inclined to go out in the sunshine and play a bit of croquet. It’s a nice thing to do with your time here.”

Find out more about the Cambridge University Association Croquet Club on croquet.soc.srcf.net

This originally appeared in the 63rd edition of the Cambridge Alumni Magazine (CAM)