The Mallet's Clonk Heralds Sweet Victory

THE goldfish knew it was summer. Not because water temperature rose and honey-gold sunlight invited them to bask near the surface. Not because the waterlilies spread their flat umbrellas above them. Not because the young hatched.

No. They knew that balmy days were here again when the bombing began. Suddenly a large round object would break their murky tranquillity by a violent descent to the bottom of the pool, then bounce, bob around excitedly, and finally float. It would not be there for long. A wooden thing like a large hammer would guide the bomb to the pond's edge, and pink fingers would lift it drippingly out.

The goldfish knew. They knew that once this first cataclysmic intervention occurred, it would recur for months. Now they had to be on their guard. Plan for spontaneous retreat.

There were other warning signs, fortunately: a great increase of laughter east of the pond; an irregular but persistent "clonk" sound. Groans, too, as of humans in torment. It was the time when, after a good mowing, our rectangular front lawn was converted into a field of cunning battle and desperate designs.

Croquet is a dangerous game - and not just for goldfish. Dad's begonias, glorious in the borders surrounding the lawn, were only too brittle when caught in the relentless onrush of an over-enthusiastically walloped ball. In really wild moments, even the greenhouse, though behind a wall, was not secure. On the two sides of the lawn where the ground fell away, balls were forever flying into orbit. Sometimes they disappeared deep into the heather, and all four players would become a search party. Croquet ba lls - red, yellow, black, and blue - are much larger of course than tennis or golf balls, so they are comparatively easy to find.

But I suspect the chief danger of croquet at our home in Surrey, England, was to the morale of visitors. Unwittingly, they would be only too happy to agree to a game. But would we just remind them of the rules? They'd be surprised that there was only one finishing post, in the middle, not two, at the ends. They would be slightly upset to know that players aren't allowed to place a foot on a ball to stop it from moving when it is mallet-thwacked to send another ball touching it as far away as possible. Th ey would be dismayed to see how narrow the hoops were - scarcely wider than the balls themselves.

But their real bemusement would set in when the game began. They would have no idea how many extra turns a practiced player could earn as he instantly took charge of the game and proceeded through hoop after hoop with suave and relentless aplomb, pausing only for an occasional, insincere apology. They could only lean and watch.

A friend recently sent me an article about croquet from the Smithsonian magazine. The author, Richard Wolkomir, summed up perfectly his defeated bafflement as the archetypal loser, never even allowed a turn. "Too soon," he writes, "the game was over. It wasn't that I had played badly. I hadn't played at all."

Too often, I fear, we subjected poor visitors at our home to similar treatment. If this left them with the feeling that we had merely used them as witnesses to our prowess ... they were right. They weren't expected to win or even to compete seriously. They were there to lose - and admire.

Although such a philosophy of gamesmanship now - some years later - makes me wince a smidgen, and although my affection for croquet runs contrary to my approach to games in general, the fact is that I can still feel the piquant relish of those triumphs over all comers on the front lawn.

So why do I love croquet but despise cricket? Both seem so quintessentially English and summery.

There are two reasons. The first is that croquet was a game I chose to play, not one thrust upon me. Cricket was one of the games that, at school, was no more voluntary than Latin or algebra. Games are all ways of wasting time, but cricket, so indifferent by definition to those (like me) who are hopeless at it, always seemed to me the ultimate in squandering the hours.

The supreme injustice of cricket is that the worst players are sometimes given the ultimate responsibility of winning a game when everyone else has failed. From ennui, one is suddenly summoned to a potential moment of glory that usually turns into a moment of shame and defeat. Then the defeat is all your fault. It's a heavy burden and unfair.

One of the truly strange English idioms to derive from this weirdest national game is: "That's not cricket!" It means: "That's not fair, not honorable!" It seems to be based on some peculiar notion that cricket is the epitome of sportsmanship, of all that's proper and right and just.

Well, croquet is "not cricket." That is probably why I like it. It is, absolutely, a game of dishonor and unfairness. It is a positive invitation to egotism, selfishness, showing off, malice, and a fulfillment of whatever innate desire one might have to knock about one's friends or relations. Croquet, correctly played, is merciless. I am unconvinced when top-flight croquet players claim that it is a decent game of planning and skill, civilized, discreet, calming. One of Richard Wolkomir's interviewees de scribes it as "all strategy.... It's a combination of chess and billiards on grass." Another says he likes croquet because of its "beauty and refinement, and it's intense intellectualism." I suppose similar words might be used not inappropriately of a scrupulously premeditated murder.

I KNOW you are thinking that I like croquet because it is one of the few things I am halfway good at. That's true. But it's not the whole truth.

I remember playing a batch of very satisfactory croquet matches with one of my nephews. We were extraordinarily well matched. Both equally brilliant, we couldn't finish; our games went on all night. In the process, we thought we had added a new dimension to the game. The only light available was a faint glow from the sitting room. So if he were attempting to hit the ball at the far end of the grass, I would mark it for him with my mallet. The black ball was particularly invisible; but all were more or le ss imperceptible. It is amazing, however, how often we made contact with balls we couldn't see.

But there is nothing new under the moon, it seems. Mr. Wolkomir mentions in his article that in British India croquet was often played "into the tropical night." So my nephew and I were simply extending the Raj. The only difference was that they placed candles on the hoops and finishing post. Cheating, really.

J. W. Solomon, one of Britain's masters of the game, observes in his book on croquet that aiming is best done with your head down. "You may, if you like," he kindly goes on, "look up once before you play to satisfy yourself that your aim is correct, but you will be surprised to find that you will be just as accurate if you shut your eyes when playing the stroke." (He adds that he only advocates this as an experiment in practice, however).

Perhaps croquet professionals (pro status has been authorized since 1988), growing a little blase with the game's challenges, might start playing Blindfold Croquet. At least it would have the advantage of the loser not being able to see just how thoroughly nasty the winner is being to him.

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