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Croquet, bowls players hope grass is greener after virus lockdown

Croquet players in Britain have returned to action after the coronavirus lockdown
Croquet players in Britain have returned to action after the coronavirus lockdown Ben STANSALL AFP
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London (AFP)

The peculiarly British sports of croquet and bowls are taking baby steps to return from the coronavirus lockdown, away from the glare of publicity.

Both conjure up images of elderly people pitting their wits against each other on lush lawns, with social interaction a big factor.

The government's easing of restrictions put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 paved the way for croquet and bowls to resume.

The Croquet Association welcomed the chance to start up again, marketing itself as an ideal sport in unusual times.

"Media reports on lockdown easing have focused on sports like golf, tennis and basketball, with the glaring omission of croquet, which is the perfect 'social-distancing' sport," it said in a statement.

"A croquet court is twice the size of a tennis court, so playing against a member of your household, or one other person from outside your household, is no problem at all."

- Churchill link -

Croquet is seen as quintessentially English -- wartime prime minister Winston Churchill replaced a tennis court at his Chartwell home with a croquet lawn.

But the origin of the sport is disputed by Jonathan Isaacs, chairman of the Croquet Association council.

"All I can say is that in the Bayeux Tapestry there is an image of a person with a mallet, hoops and ball so the indications are it came over with William the Conqueror (in 1066)," he told AFP.

Isaacs said the coronavirus shutdown had proved a headache but he remained upbeat about the future of the sport.

"Fortunately, as a governing body we have pretty robust finances behind us and we had enough money in a contingency fund to be able to say 'yeah we can see a way through this' and offer loans to clubs who have problems.

"Clubs so far have not taken up any offers and appear to be coping reasonably well."

Isaacs said at his club, Sussex County Croquet Club on England's south coast, which hosted last year's golf croquet world championship (the other form of the game is association croquet), members rallied around to help the vulnerable.

"We set up a contact rota and phoned them up but most quite frankly are desperate to get back on the lawn," he said.

Isaacs said the main challenge was returning to tournament play but pointed out that one positive was that the game itself "by its definition is an exercise in social distancing".

"Only one person is on the lawn at any one time. With golf croquet, although two players are on court at the same time the etiquette is the non-playing person stands well clear."

- Spanish Armada -

Legend has it that famed Elizabethan explorer Francis Drake delayed returning to his ship to confront the Spanish Armada in 1588 in order finish a game of bowls.

His modern-day descendants on the greens have had to face a hidden enemy and even though they can now play again, it is not straightforward.

Many players are elderly and the over-70s have been advised to continue to self-isolate despite the partial relaxation of lockdown measures.

"At least half, if not two-thirds, of all bowling members are over 70," Rod McBeth, honorary secretary of Sussex County Bowls men's section, said.

The county has 4,800 male members and 2,700 female members.

McBeth, 75 next month, said it had been a trying time and patience has been wearing thin.

"I am doing jigsaw puzzles but the inaction has driven me round the twist and if I was of that nature I would get depressed," he said.

"However, I have spoken to a lot of club members who are tearing their hair out."

Despite his mounting frustration, McBeth will be steering clear of the green for now. Competitions have been deferred until next year and he is wary of the possible risks.

"There is no point in taking a chance for nothing," he said. "A lot of people who are able to do so will not. They are not sure it is a safe thing to do."

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