Croquet has a small but fervent fan base in Austria
The first challenge you face when discussing croquet in Austria is explaining that it’s not the same thing as cricket. The concept of both, it’s fair to say, is pretty vague in these parts. The fact that both sports have a reputation for Englishness and involve people dressed in white, clubbing small round balls for long periods with bits of wood doesn’t help.
It’s a popular misconception but, as an avid cricket player myself, I have a firm grasp of the difference. As I head out to Wolkersdorf near Vienna, I might be making national history by brushing with both sports on a single weekend. For I’m on my way to the 14th Austrian Croquet Championships.
Sure enough, one of the first players I meet at the eight-man tournament, the Bavarian native Bernhard Langhammer, reveals that it was actually another cricket/croquet mix-up that got him into the sport four years ago.
“It’s a funny story,” Bernhard tells me, explaining that he has a patch of his garden set up for Eisstockschießen, a winter game similar to curling. “I was wondering what I could do with this flat area during the summer. I got the idea of using it for croquet when I read an interview with [then Deutsche Bank CEO] Anshu Jain.”
“He mentioned croquet as his favorite sport, so I turned my Eisstockschiessen area into a croquet court for the summer. Later on, I discovered that he’d actually been talking about cricket!”
But by that time Bernhard was smitten with his new summer hobby. Unable to find signs of croquet in southern Germany, he turned to Salzburg, which has one of three active clubs in Austria. He traveled three and a half hours to join this weekend’s contest at the Wolkersdorf Croquet Club, the country’s only tournament-grade venue.
If telling the sport apart from cricket isn’t hard enough, consider that one of the two forms of croquet is named after golf. “Golf croquet” is the simpler version – quick, easy to learn and usually over in half an hour or so. In essence, you get two balls each, knocking them through hoops in a predefined course while trying to scupper your opponents as they attempt the same.
With red and yellow typically taking on blue and black, echoes of snooker are everywhere. I tried golf croquet in south London once, and was pleasantly surprised. Taking snooker or billiards outdoors where you can get a tan, see daylight and breathe fresh air rather than belch infused barroom miasma has a lot to be said for it.
Today, though, it’s all about the longer and more traditional version: association croquet. For the purists, this is the real deal. 86-year-old Wolfgang Wurz, who was actually born into a croquet playing Austrian family and learned the game in his back garden, is one of them.
“There’s more strategy than in golf croquet. Here, anybody taking a turn should have a plan for at least four or five shots ahead. But we do play both forms of the sport here. And yes, we always have to explain the difference between cricket and croquet too!”
Wolfgang’s fellow Wolkersdorf member Georg Schorr, the new Obmann (chairman) of the Austrian Croquet Federation, kindly helps explain the rules to me. With two games happening simultaneously on each court – eight balls in play altogether – an introduction is sorely needed. After a time, it starts to make sense. And I start to consider that if people watch snooker on television, then why not croquet?
Likewise for playing as well: Wolkersdorf only counts 10 (mostly gray-haired) members and may cry out for fresh converts, but croquet undoubtedly has untapped potential. It may never be sexy, but it has novelty value like perhaps no other sport: In Australia, similar sentiments have recently seen lawn bowls enjoyed by groups of young professionals drinking beer. It’s not a big leap to imagine croquet getting similar treatment – even if most people enjoy it just as an occasional diversion.
And then there’s Austria’s hidden croquet community, heirs to the Anglophiles who popularized the game over here before it fell out of fashion during the First World War. They’re out there, says Georg.
“I think a lot of people with a lot of money have got private lawns by their homes,” he tells me. “We know this because we get enquiries for mallets and balls.”
A hidden world of croquet aficionados indulging themselves behind high hedges in secret gardens. Another dark Austrian secret to ponder as I watch the competitors – some in shorts, some in longs, but all dressed in whites – stride about with impressive purpose. They’ve been at it since yesterday morning, playing three games of up to two-and-a-half hours each daily. That’s a long time to be on your feet: After a long day on the green, cold drinks are well deserved!
Georg, Wolfgang and Bernhard are playing in the “plate” group for the lower finishers in yesterday’s open round-robin, but there’s more serious stuff afoot on the adjacent green, where the gallery of two (myself excluded) is gathered. The Hauptgruppe (main group) is vying for the trophy – made in St. Lucia, of all places – with home player Martin Güntner eventually emerging victorious for his second career title.
Go ask Alice
Unlike the sport it’s often confused with, croquet in Austria has barely an expat in sight. Enthusiastic locals keep it going but welcome one and all for a friendly game. After all, it’s one of those rare sports where men and women can compete together – as demonstrated by one of the most famous heroines in literature.
“Most people know croquet from Alice in Wonderland,” smiles Georg with the air of someone who’s heard the reference about a billion times. “But this is a different game. People really enjoy it when they try it, but we need them to start coming back!”
And I’d be tempted to do exactly that. If only I wasn’t so busy with that other sport called cricket…
Austrian Golf Croquet Championship
Sep 30 – Oct 1, Croquetclub Wolkersdorf.
Kirschenallee 6, Wolkersdorf im Weinviertel.