As Trinity term begins, Oxford’s lawns will be busier than ever with students bidding for glory in a sport so unfeasibly pleasant that victory seems almost immaterial.
By Ian Plummer (Balliol, 1976)
Which cuppers sport involves around ten per cent of all Oxford students each year with the aim of the winning team pegging out? Croquet of course! What many take to be a trivial pastime has swelled into one of the major summer sporting events in the University. And the season gets under way this weekend.
Croquet’s popularity has boomed in recent years, with close to 500 teams of four signing up in 2014. It has been embraced by the members of the University since its inception nearly a century and a half ago. A club was formed for senior members in 1867 in the University Parks whilst junior members played in their college quads. It was only in 1976 that the senior members opened their croquet courts to students. A few good degrees have been sacrificed for croquet on those courts!
The winning combination of being outdoors in Trinity term with a game of strategy and concentration, plus an occasional beverage, remains a seductive one. The more enthusiastic players flock to the University lawns for free coaching from the University croquet experts to gain an edge for their team. Websites on rules and tactics are scrutinised and heated exchanges take place on the interpretation of the Laws during matches.
The sport has changed over the years — colleges now have state-of-the art carbon fibre mallets, precision moulded plastic balls of standard dimensions and bounce and fat welded iron tournament-standard hoops, instead of bent coat hangers. The students buzz with the jargon — ‘he did a four-ball break!’, or ‘triple peel’ whispered in awed tones.
The 2014 winners were Magdalen 2 (Hugh Stevens, Cameron Deans, Jim Bradford, Pete Batley) who triumphed over Worcester 4 (Rajiv Golna, Karim Sutton, Jerome Wicker, Samuel Poulson). Last year some colleges fielded 44 teams in the competition.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the University is a world leader in the sport. With more than 2,000 students involved, Croquet Cuppers is the biggest organised croquet competition in the world. And our students are not only enthusiastic but successful. Harry Fisher, Lincoln, was selected for the Great Britain squad last season and was awarded honours as the most improved male player in the country by the Croquet Association. Our alumni have a significant presence in the world arena — ten per cent of the entrants in the last world championship were taught on the University lawns.
Croquet has changed from a pastime to a sport, Oxford is lauded by the croquet world as a cradle of future talent — and it is still damn good fun to play!
Dr Ian Plummer read chemistry and for his doctorate developed a new form of electron microscope. He worked at Corpus Christi and St Anne’s before returning to Balliol, where he retired from full-time work last June. He has played croquet since he was a graduate, has coached Oxford students for at least a couple of decades, and was elected a life member of the Oxford University Croquet Club in 2013.
Photographs of croquet at Oriel College and in Holywell Quad, New College, are © Oxford University Images / John Cairns Photography.