Old people and their parents

September 5, 2012

By Andy Clark

Arriving outside the main gates I couldn’t help but notice there were no crowds of spectators milling around or scalpers shouting their prime seat tickets for sale, in fact all was very quiet. It was roughly 7:45am and besides a couple of birds singing in the trees and a dog barking somewhere out of sight it appeared I was completely alone. My sudden fears of the wrong day and or wrong place were soon quelled as I entered the gates and walked down a small path. There before me was the field of play and scattered across it were the players warming up and preparing for the first day of competition at the fifth annual Pacific Cup Croquet Tournament.

Yes that is correct folks, I said croquet. Several months ago I was searching for a website totally unrelated and for reasons only Google knows, up came a page with a detailed list of the 2012 croquet tournaments across North America. Before I could click the page away, I remembered seeing some interesting images from a tournament at least 25 years ago and thought, I wonder. Sure enough listed halfway down the page was the Vancouver Croquet Club’s fifth annual Pacific Cup.

Like many people, the only croquet I know is what one may have played in their backyard as a child, known as Golf Croquet. The croquet I was about to witness was nothing like that. The game played during the tournament was the full international version known as Association Croquet. I can report that even after it was explained to me on several occasions combined with watching it for three days, all I know is that it involves two players and each match runs just over two hours. In fact my ignorance of the sport became clear on the first day of competition. I had settled down on a bench along the sidelines to watch a couple of players warming up, hoping to get any idea of what to expect once play began. After about 40 minutes I thought this was an unusually long warm up. I approached an elderly fellow nearby and asked when the game might get underway. With a look of disbelief the gentleman replied “they have been playing for 30 minutes”.

Obviously croquet is not a game of action but rather, from what I can tell, a game of strategy and quiet reflection. One player referred to it as chess on grass. Besides the sound of the mallet connecting with the ball there is very little sound at all. No moments of high five joy or shouts of jubilation here. One may hear a player compliment another on his well played turn or you might hear another player curse under his breath on a missed shot but other than that it’s like photographing a sporting event inside a monastery.

Photographing croquet did offer some interesting challenges. As I have said this sport does not involve moments of peak action. Your are not intently concentrating through your lens with your finger on a hair trigger waiting for athletes to fly through the air or crash into each other. Croquet required great patience and sometimes shear willpower not to walk away out of boredom. Observing players and their body language or style of play became the key.

I observed one player for over an hour after I noticed he would once in awhile take a particular stroke, or shot causing both croquet balls to bounce off the ground, one of the more action packed moments of the game. I also found I spent a lot of time walking around the pitch so as to be in the right spot for any anticipated moments. I estimate over the days I was there I probably walked some three or four kilometers in total.

Though I admit there were times I wasn’t sure croquet was going to make a decent photo story in the end I think it was well worth the time. There is no question I learned a new respect for the skill and ability of these players, much like golfers and how they can maneuver a ball with a club. I don’t think I will take up the sport myself anytime soon but according to some research I did, the sport has become very popular in the last 25 years. Its roots apparently go back to the thirteenth century when French peasants played the game, but its modern day history began in the 1850s and has fallen in and out of favor since then. Prior to 1980 there were only an estimated 50 competitive players in North America. Today there are an estimated 8,000. While talking to one of the players on the final day he recounted a story to me that probably describes what most people think. A famous croquet player a number of years ago when asked about joining a local club by a novice quipped back “There are only two kinds of croquet players in the world. Old people and their parents.”

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