Can Team America Conquer Croquet?
If the dearly departed World Cup left you hankering for international sports in which the United States can play the role of scrappy underdog, you might want to check in on the MacRobertson Shield this week. The Macca-what-what, you ask? The MacRobertson Shield: the premier world championship event in the sport (yes!) of croquet; a four-nation tournament that begins in England this week and continues through August.
If you’re like me, you may well have played some croquet this summer. Just last Friday, I won a sweet set of fuzzy wristbands in a tournament held at my in-laws’ place, wherein players were required to keep one hand on their drinks at all times. Win or lose, I love me some croquet.
Suffice it to say, however, that the MacRobertson Shield has almost nothing to do with that kind of patio-sport nonsense. When the United States national croquet team (again: yes!) faces off against Great Britain this week, the game will feature six hoops, a huge field and strategic challenges worthy of Bobby Fischer. Our Boys face a daunting mental, emotional and competitive challenge—the United States has never finished ahead of Great Britain in the “MacRob.” Australia and New Zealand will be out for blood, as well.
To get more insight on this pan-Anglospheric (sorry, Canada) croquet kumite, I called Jim Bast. The Austin resident and Team USA member has been playing competitive croquet for nearly 30 years, and played an important role in qualifying the U.S. for the MacRob for the first time in 1993. On the eve of the biggest tournament of his life, Bast explained serious croquet.
GOOD: How is the croquet you play different from the croquet I played, half-drunkenly, at my sister- and brother-in-law’s place this weekend?
Jim Bast: Well, I always try not to come off as a snob about backyard croquet, which is the nine-hoop game with the little coat-hanger-style wire hoops and the mallets that always break. All of us, in America, started out playing that game, and I have a lot of affection for it. But the analogy that I always use is playing Major League Baseball versus playing T-ball. It’s a related concept, but as far as the details of the game, the execution and the strategy, it’s completely different.
GOOD: What are some of the factors that elevate the degree of difficulty so radically?
JB: We play on a huge court—105 feet by 85 feet—and the grass is typically mown down like a putting green. It’s extremely flat. In Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, they actually take a perverse pleasure in allowing the grass to go brown and the soil to become hard. Last time I played in New Zealand, it was pretty much like playing on an asphalt parking lot. They like their croquet as fast as possible, and those conditions are just extraordinarily difficult.
G: And we (meaning, of course, you) don’t play this way in the US?
JB: In America, our penchant tends to be for nice esthetics. And our championship-class croquet courts tend to be at fancy resorts. So, of course, they want lush, green grass. In England and Down Under, the facilities all tend to be dedicated croquet clubs. They have their own fields, their own locker rooms, their own bars. They can do whatever they want with their fields. Adjusting to that is one of our biggest challenges, and we expect the courts for the MacRobertson Shield to be exceptionally hard and fast.
G: That brings us to the MacRobertson Shield. Uh, what is it?
JB: Historically, it’s the premier championship event in the croquet world. It’s held only every three or four years. And until 1993, only Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand were allowed to field teams. In 1993, it was decided that the U.S. had enough good players that we could be expected to field a strong team of six for every tournament. For a lot of croquet players, being selected to play for our country in the MacRob is the pinnacle of the sport. I played in eight major tournaments just to make myself eligible for selection.
G: And, as I understand it, you can’t even practice in your hometown.
JB: That’s right. There’s no championship-caliber croquet court in Austin, which is kind of strange. So I have to drive to Houston, which is about three hours. But I do it. You have to understand, this is like our Davis Cup or Ryder Cup.
G: How does it work?
JB: Each of the four nations plays one match against all the others, meaning that each team plays three times. There are six players on a team. Each player plays two singles matches, against opponents determined by an order the teams choose—the Number One and Number Two players from each side play each other, and so on. Then, each player is part of a doubles team, and all the doubles teams play each other. The team that wins the most games over the course of a match—which takes several days—wins the match.
G: If this is croquet’s world championship, why is it limited to four countries?
JB: It’s tough, because there are countries that have quality players, of course. Ireland has good players. South Africa has good players. The issue is, will they be able to put together six players worthy of the Shield, every single time? That’s the standard. Now, this time, for the first time, they’ve added additional countries to the overall event. They’re calling the Shield “tier one,” but there are also “tier two” and “tier three” competitions, and the whole thing is being called the World Team Championship. So there’s a bit of flux going on there, but really there’s not much question about the top four countries.
G: I think a question on everyone’s mind vis a vis competitive croquet might be—well, how hard can it be?
JB: Several things are very appealing about croquet. One is, you can play at the highest level if you have the talent and dedication, but you can also go out with the exact same equipment and rules and just have a beer game. It can be intense, or it can be social. The barriers to entry aren’t really physical—we have top players who are teenagers, and top players in their seventies. Gender doesn’t really matter that much. What croquet is, at the elite level, is a game of strategy. I call it chess on grass. I can go into my turn and know, provided that I execute all my shots, exactly where my ball will be 15 or 20 strokes from now. I can tell you where the other balls are likely to be 50 strokes from now. It is a very challenging and engaging mental puzzle. A serious game is exhausting and emotionally draining—you can be out there for hours, under constant pressure.
G: Can you give me a little preview of the Shield?
JB: Great Britain is always the favorite. Right now, they have a group of players that’s just amazing—a generation of about a dozen really good players who are almost interchangeable. So they are definitely the team to beat. At the same time, I think we can do it. The United States has never placed better than third in the MacRobertson Shield, but this is by far the best team we’ve ever had. We have great chemistry. We are going there to win, that’s the way I look at it.
Photo (cc) by Flickr user Spaktography