The tennis nets around town have been taken down. Solitary running and my home gym set up only goes so far. I need competition. I need a sport to play, one conducive to social distancing. Croquet anyone?
I have an old backyard croquet set I inherited from my father. It’s very ordinary, but I guess you could still call it an heirloom. The mallet heads are grass-stained and dented, and you have to tighten the handles after a few shots. Some of the wire wickets are hopelessly bent. Amazingly, the balls remain in good condition. And such great color options: sometimes it’s hard to choose.
I’m playing with my friend Jim. It’s a perfect spring day, with dandelions and clover blooming on my backyard pitch. We set up a challenging course, with wickets stuck into the ground on uneven surfaces or on crazy angles or next to rocks we’ll attempt to use as backboards. We make a lot of house rules that we negotiate on the fly. It’s pretty wild stuff for such a tame game.
But for us, the game isn’t so tame. Jim and I used to ride mountain bike trails: rocks and roots, jumps, logs, screaming downhills, tortuous climbs. Injuries and age tamped that down a bit. But when we rode we rode hard, we were committed, and we had a lot of fun, and now we try to bring that adrenaline and performance to the extreme sport of . . . croquet.
We consult each other on shot execution and playing strategy—yes there is strategy in croquet. Example: Go for the wicket on a long shot and risk traveling too far afield, or lay up for an easier tap through on your next turn? Strike the other ball to gain an extra shot, or keep playing through in an effort to stay ahead? It’s a one-on-one race to the finish. You better not get anxious.
We played with gusto. We encouraged each other. We went for the risky shots, but in a socially-distanced, contactless sport, why not take risks? The pain of messing up a shot doesn’t linger too long, unlike mountain bike falls that lead to a broken ankle or bruised ribs.
Croquet is all about shot-making. When I hit a bad stretch of missing almost everything, I start experimenting with my swing to break the funk. I’m way behind.
And then I have a chance to make a move. Jim faces an impossibly long shot to get through the next wicket, a sharp angle across the forbidding terrain of my weedy, bumpy lawn. He takes his time and lines up his shot like he’s on the eighteenth green needing a birdie to win the U.S. Open. Naturally, I snicker.
He strikes the ball and it zips along a ragged trajectory, pops over a bump, and passes perfectly through the center of the wicket. An incredible shot! We love games when there’s a shot made like that. We shout and cheer, both of us. I turn toward him, ready to hug and celebrate such skill, such luck, and then we both remember: social distancing, no touching. We tap the tip of our mallets.
He wins that game handily, and then a couple more before I mount my comeback. And then we have a few beers, sitting six feet apart.