Croquet by Mrs. Gertrude Spong

In Dr. Prior's "Notes on Croquet," published in 1872, the origin of the game is traced to PÍle MÍle, or Pall Mall, a game played with mallet and balls as long ago as 1661, and written of by the celebrated Mr. Pepys in his diary about that time. Pall mall was played with long handled mallets, with small balls, on gravel, and with long swinging strokes, and appears to have much more resembled golf than croquet; but Dr. Prior writes of a modified form of the game which only occupied a narrow but smooth space of ground, and in which two small arches and one iron peg were employed, while the strokes were made with a spoon-headed mallet, resembling the mace used at billiards.

A hundred years later, a game bearing the name croquet was played by the peasants of Brittany, a rough pastime, detailed accounts of which may be read in Mr. A. Lillie's work on croquet published last year, or in Dr. Prior's earlier book. The game, as first known in this country, seems to have come from Ireland somewhere about 1857, when it was brought out by Mr. Jaques as a social garden game; a trivial enough pastime from which gradually developed the more interesting game of the present day. It was to Mr. Walter Jones Whitmore that the first start of really scientific croquet is due, and he it was who organised the first tournament in 1867, held at Evesham, when Mr. Whitmore became the champion. In the following year, a much larger tournament was held at Moreton-in-the-Marsh, when the Championship fell to the late Mr. W. H. Peel, whose interest in the game never flagged, and to whose untiring exertions much of the success of the present revival is due. He founded the present All-England Croquet Association, two years ago, (1896), and became its honorary secretary, his sadly sudden death last October leaving a blank hard to fill.

In 1868, Mr. Whitmore got up the All-England Croquet Club, and from this point the tactics of the game became its prominent feature. With the expulsion of tight croquet (viz., when two balls were together, placing your foot on your own ball to keep it in position, and hitting it so as to send the other ball away), and the introduction of the dead boundary, croquet became a game more of the head than the hands, the various positions in a game requiring perfectly different treatment according to the capabilities of the antagonists. At this time, too, a code of laws was drawn up by Mr. Whitmore and a few leading spirits, which in some respects differed materially from the rules of to-day, notably in that requiring the side stroke.

From 1869, the date of the first Open Tournament, held on the All-England Club grounds, at Wimbledon, till 1882, yearly matches were played there for the Championship and Challenge Cup, and for some years there was also a Ladies' Championship contest, but either the extreme narrowness of the hoops, the large size of the grounds, or the necessity for constant practice, so reduced the number of competitors that these matches were abandoned, and even the Gentlemen's Championship for three or four years practically dwindled down to a match between two players (Mr. Bonham Carter and Mr. Spong), till in 1882, the Cup having been finally won by the latter, croquet became a thing of the past at Wimbledon. The club grounds were then handed over to lawn-tennis players until 1896, when a small body of enthusiastic croquet players started the game afresh, and in a few weeks several old players rallied round them, and one or two small but successful meetings were held.

In the interval, croquet had not altogether died out. At Brentwood, a small club had held its meetings for some time, and at Maidstone, a yearly tournament had taken place since 1894, while players were to be found in the remote village of Budleigh Salterton, and in the far west of Somersetshire, Dr. Prior kept up a perfect lawn, on which in former years most of the well-known players had tried their skill.

To make a croquet lawn as perfect as possible, it should be absolutely level, of fine hill turf, not mossy or intersected with plantains, and if possible there should be a layer of cinders or other Ballast a few inches below the surface, as this serves to drain it more quickly and also prevents worms from working through.

The measurements now required are 35 by 28 yards, though until last year 40 by 30 yards was considered a match ground. The boundaries should be marked by a chalk line, and at each corner a white spot should be made exactly one yard from each boundary, to mark the position for replacing a corner ball, a matter of much importance in every game. The six hoop setting, with 4-inch hoops and two stout pegs is universally adopted. The hoops are of round iron half an inch thick, square topped, and painted white, No. 1 being generally a light blue to shew the starting-point. They should be long enough to be driven quite nine inches into the ground, and stand the same distance above it, and they are generally painted black in the lower half to show when properly driven in. Of the pegs, one should be plain white, the other (the winning peg) painted with the four colours, blue, red, black, yellow, in order, and both should have small crossbars inserted on which to place the clips. It is essential that the balls should be in these plain colours, and it would be well if the vendors of croquet implements would avoid the striped balls, so bewildering in sequence, and so much more difficult to aim at. Every so-called set should be provided with four iron clips, painted to match the balls, which are used to indicate the position of the game, and are placed on the top of the hoops in the first half, and on the sides in the return journey.

In the matter of mallets every licence is given, each player using the kind he likes best. The weight of these varies from 2-1/3 to 3-1/2 lbs., and the length of the head and shape is a matter of individual fancy. Many well-known players keep a variety of mallets and sometimes change the weapon frequently in a game; but for my own part I believe in getting accustomed to one mallet and sticking to it. The shapes are some of them most peculiar, and one of the old players for years used a mallet head like a thick solid block with square ends, while a player recently appeared with a mallet head of extraordinary length, and somewhat resembling the bottom of a rocking-chair. Some mallets are sliced at the bottom, with the idea that by this means the ball is hit more directly in the centre, and is not so liable to be topped. Some again have a flat brass plate attached at the bottom for extra weight, while one lady plays with a beautiful ivory mallet, long in the head but of smaller diameter than the usual box-wood ones. Heads of lignum vitś are also used, and many players have india-rubber 1/4-inch thick affixed to one end, by which means two balls can be rolled together a distance of nearly thirty yards without any undue effort. This is a great boon to lady players, as without the india-rubber a very powerful following stroke is required, a hard hit only separating the balls, the hinder or playing ball rarely reaching half the distance.

The manner of equalising in a competition is by handicapping the strong players, who give bisques, viz., one or more extra turns in each game, which may be taken at any time in continuation of a break, but not more than one bisque in the same turn.

The manner of holding the mallet and striking varies in the hands of different players, Mr. C. E. Willis the present Champion at Wimbledon and at Maidstone being the finest example of a side stroke player, as set forth by Mr. Whitmore and and Mr. Peel, while Mr. Bonham Carter, Mr. Spong, Capt. Drummond and many others consider the aim much more certain with the forward position, a kind of pendulum stroke in which the weight of the mallet tells more than any force used. Some of the most successful of the lady players, too, use this method of striking, notably Miss Maud Drummond (winner of the Ladies' Gold Medal in 1896, and of the Wimbledon Championship Badge in 1897) and Miss Elphinstone Stone (present holder of the Maidstone Ladies' Cup), but Miss de Winton (Gold Medallist, 1897) and Mrs. Wood adhere to the older side stroke.

Since the early days of Croquet, when six or eight players engaged in one game on a small lawn, with hoops often wide enough for a child to crawl through, and sometimes a cage and bell occupying the centre of the ground, the game has changed almost beyond recognition. Then "tactics" were unknown, everybody's idea being to go into position for the hoop their ball was to pass through, and by tight croquet to send off every adversary to the greatest possible distance. Players thus disposed of were often required to shoot back from a ground occupied by a second set of players, and a good long shot won more applause than anything else in the game; but with the introduction of the dead boundary, the game changed entirely. Rules were made, more than 4 balls were never employed in a game, and the terms "roquet," "dead ball," "live ball," "pioneer," "break," "rush," &c., soon became familiar words, a complete list of these, with detailed instructions for playing the game in a scientific manner, are so admirably set forth in Mr. Lillie's book, published last year, that intending players will do well to study it, but the meaning of a few of the terms may not be out of place here.

A "roquet" is made when the playing ball strikes another ball; after a "roquet," croquet must be taken by placing the two balls together, and either striking your own ball so that it goes to some required point, only moving the other ball a little, which is called taking two off; or by sending each ball in a different direction (a splitting stroke); or again by rolling the two balls together. In taking croquet, if either ball touches the boundary line it is considered dead, and the turn ceases. The "live ball" is the next to play, and the "dead ball" is the name given to the adversary's ball which has just played. A ball is considered "in play," when in its turn it has made a point and has still to continue its turn, but is "in hand" after making a "roquet" until "croquet" is taken. The "rush" is a roquet sending the ball hit in some desired direction. Thus in taking croquet, it is often advisable to get near another ball on some particular side, to "rush" it into position for a hoop, etc. The rush is one of the most telling strokes in a game, but requires some practice, as the ball must be struck low, with the mallet held freely and pointed rather in an upward direction. A ball hit at all on the top is apt to jump, and indeed a leapfrog stroke which will clear another ball and sometimes a hoop, is often successfully carried out by the best players, when their ball is blocked from the desired object. To "wire" is to place the balls in such a position that they are screened from the next player's shot, by one or more hoops. Making a "point" is the hoop or peg made in order. The "pioneer" is the ball sent on to the hoop next but one in order, to assist the playing ball at that point. "Break" is the name given to a succession of points made in the same turn. A "rover" is a ball which has passed through all the hoops, and only has to touch the winning peg. To "finesse" is to play into a corner so that the dead ball shall not be easily available to assist in the adversary's game, and that the friendly ball may join it when it's turn arrives. This is only done when the opponents' two balls are together. "Counter finesse" is for the adversary next playing to send his partner's ball to join the dead ball in the corner, thus preventing the others getting together. To "peel" to put another ball through its hoop by croquet. This stroke is named after the late Mr. W. H. Peel, who was particularly successful with it, and only last autumn at a handicap meeting on the Wimbledon grounds he won a game in which he "peeled" his partner's ball through the four last hoops.

The option of beginning in a match falls to the winner of the toss, who always elects to do so, and by that means usually secures the first break. In a partner match, however, the winner of the toss often puts in the other side first, as it is an advantage for the captain to play immediately before his strongest opponent. In starting the ball is placed one foot from the first hoop, in position for making that point. It has been suggested that a change in this rule would be of advantage. For instance, if each ball started from a spot in the centre of the ground, it would make a greater variety in the opening tactics.

One of the advantages of croquet is its suitability to players of all ages and to those not in robust health, as, unlike golf, it requires no great physical strength. People who would not be able to walk miles across the rough ground of the links, exhilarating as this is to the strong, can yet enjoy the more gentle exercise on a level lawn. It is a well-known fact in the croquet world that many of its players attribute their improved health to the hours they have spent on the croquet lawn—the late Rev. Mark Pattison, of Oxford, being one of these, and the Rev. D. J. Heath another.

There is a charm, too, in the equal terms on which men and women players can meet. I do not say but what men as a rule are the better players—their constant practise at aiming at billiards and other games giving them more accuracy of aim—but setting this aside, there seems no reason why women should not play equally well with practice. Where they often fail doubtless is in attempting too much. Not content with leaving the dead ball with their partner's ball, and laying its break by sending off the next player and going to act pioneer at the partner's hoop, it is said of women especially, that they often try a difficult hoop with the live ball, break down and thus let the other side in, which with the more cautious plan would have been avoided. Again, croquet is a game in which success is by no means a matter of mechanical skill alone, for in croquet, as in chess, the player must look ahead not only for one move but must count on the probability of the adversary's success or failure, judging by the power already exhibited, and by the state of the ground, etc. Thus it is often good policy if the opponents' balls are together in a corner on a fast dry lawn, not to risk a long "take off" with a probability of going over the boundary in an endeavour to separate them, but for the player to roll his own and partner's ball into another corner (if possible across the ground) leaving a rush for the partner's ball towards the adversaries, or to its own hoop, thus necessitating the opponent trying the difficult take off with hoops in the way, and the possibility of going over the boundary or catching in a wire, etc. I think, too, there is less of the element of "luck" in croquet than in many games, though of course we are all apt to cavil at our bad fortune now and then.

The present condition of croquet may be considered as encouraging. Its popularity has revived very rapidly, though it is only from the Southern and one or two of the Midland Counties that we have as yet met players of any prominence. In Scotland, it is true, there has long been a championship meeting held at Moffat, where Mr. and Mrs. Macfie, of Borthwick Hall, Midlothian, are among its most liberal supporters. We have had one or two Irish players at the recent Wimbledon meetings, and I hear that in County Down the game is much played. Croquet lawns are, indeed, set out at the fashionable Social Clubs of Hurlingham and Ranelagh, but alas, the game and its requirements are little understood there. A well-organised tournament on the picturesque grounds of the latter club, at Barn Elms, in the height of the season, might do much to spread its popularity, for the large tournament at Eastbourne last autumn, showed a marked increase in spectators, who displayed some knowledge of the tactics of the game, and the keenest interest in the contests. Another interesting feature of each season would be inter-county matches. Devonshire, Gloucestershire, Sussex, Hertfordshire, Middlesex, Northamptonshire, Bucks., &c., all furnish some strong players, and representative fours might be selected, and gentlemen's doubles, ladies' doubles, and mixed doubles might be arranged, as well as, of course, single matches. Monthly Club Handicaps, too, we hope to see at Wimbledon, and there are rumours of an International Tournament with a strong contingent of American players, with whom the game is popular, though it is hardly played on the same lines as in England.

It is contended against croquet that the games are too long, and certainly, with some overcautious players, a close match becomes a very tedious thing. To obviate this difficulty, in all handicap matches in the big tournaments last year, time games were resorted to, an hour-and-a-half being generally the allowance for each single match, and two hours for doubles, ample time to finish a game in most instances, though, if not finished, the side ahead wins, and if points, are even when time is called, the first roquet afterwards constitutes a victory. This gives scope for some amusing strategy, when the contest is a very close one.

Reducing the size of the lawns has undoubtedly made the game easier and more equal, for the weaker players can now get a ball from end to end, which many women were formerly unable to do, while the opportunities of wiring one's adversary are more frequent. The main point resolves itself, not so entirely into a matter of skill, as in rightly estimating one's own strength and one's adversary's knowledge of the game. In handicap play this is specially needful, and it is only by match practice it can be gained. In double handicaps it is usual for the pairs to be drawn, the captain from one of the first four classes, and the partner from a lower class, and nothing gives an intelligent beginner a better insight into "tactics" than being guided by a really good partner. Mr. Bonham Carter is an ideal captain, never leaving his partner a difficult stroke, and never making a long break himself with the partner's ball behind, thus being able to help the weaker player, who is not discouraged with the idea that it is her ball which is the laggard. It is only by match practice that this knowledge is gained, and to play in a good tournament handicap is excellent training.

As a garden-party game, Mr. Lillie, in his book, suggests some amusing innovations, but croquet proper, as the rules now stand, is something better than a garden-party game, and stands among out-door amusements as chess and billiards do among in-door games.