The past six days have been spent on beautiful green lawns competing in the Western Province Croquet Association’s Annual Tournament.   In order to play in the four events for which I am eligible I put aside four days of my schedule, which were freed of any other commitments.

The trip to the venue for the competition in Somerset West takes about an hour – a little more or a little less depending on the traffic.   The unpredictability of the journey required an early rising of 6.30am with the return home in the late afternoon in time to take the dogs for a walk.   Whilst anticipating this competition, which takes place in the height of the South African summer, I was concerned about the degree of heat with which I may have to cope.    Luckily all four days were comparatively mild and my energy which was supplemented by liberal quantities of isotonic liquid held out.

What I had not anticipated was that I would enter into the quarter-finals of the Handicap Doubles Event.   My partner and I won our round robin section in the initial rounds which meant that on the fifth day we were required to play in both  the quarter-finals and the semi-finals.  As we were successful in both these matches we had to return for the sixth day to play in the finals at nine o’clock in the morning.

I am trying to work out what motivates me to take that supreme amount of effort to participate in competitive play and undergo the nervousness experienced during the game, when an 80 years old lady could well be sitting at home in front of the TV.   I may mention at this point that I do not possess a TV.   I source my daily news from a local newspaper or the internet, and my entertainment comes from online channels such as TED and YouTube.

My partner Raegan Malenga for this competition is a 32 year old refugee from the Congo who has been living in Cape Town for the past five years and works as a painter – decorating buildings from eight in the morning until six in the evening.   A series of events, the details of which I have not been able to totally unravel from this young man whose mother tongue is French, has resulted in him taking up residence in the tool shed of our local croquet club.   Living on the premises for the past six months, he has had the chance to practice his croquet regularly, whilst he has taken over some of the responsibility for maintaining the lawns as well as the club house.  He has mastered the game so well that I invited him to partner me in the recent competition.   It is a great feeling to know I assisted a young person to achieve something that is unheard of in his community of birth.   However,  that is not enough to get me up early in the morning six days in a row and negotiate the early morning traffic.

So, there must be something about the game of croquet that motivates me.   Or maybe something about my personality make up.   As it is easier for me to analyse the game of croquet, than my personal motivation, let me indulge in an exploration of the dynamics of the game of croquet.

It is a slow game, bearing some resemblance to golf as you hit the ball with a specialised instrument with the aim of moving it thought a hoop rather than dropping it into a hole.   However in golf you are not allowed to hit your partner’s ball, in croquet part of the skill is to move your partner’s ball as far away from the hoop as possible, whilst retaining your ball in a position to go through the hoop.   The decision as to whether to hit your partner’s ball away, a defensive shot; or promote your ball closer to the hoop which is constructive, is always a judgement and in integral part of the strategy of the game.   The mental agility required in making this decision is certainly part of the attraction of croquet as far as I am concerned.

One needs a fair amount of skilled physical co-ordination in order to hit the ball accurately.   This may involve a gentle hit to block the opponent’s route to the hoop, or a highly energetic movement to remove your opponent’s ball far away from the hoop.   This is where Raegan has developed over six months to be able to compete against the best players in the Western Cape.   Living at the club, he practices daily and his accuracy at hitting the opponent away, and his shots at the hope have a high percentage of success.

A fascinating aspect of croquet is the slowness of the game which allows for a partnership to share their ideas about strategy before taking each shot.   The rules of the game allow 60 seconds between shots for partners to discuss the various possibilities available to them.   So whilst verbal interactions before taking a shot are part and parcel of the game, stillness and silence are required when your opponents are playing.

Having indulged myself in an analysis of some of the highlights of croquet, I am starting to understand the rationale for my enjoyment of the game.   However my need to play competitively needs further analysis.   I believe this challenge has something to do with the neurotransmitter of dopamine, the detailed role can be understood by studying the intricacies of the physiology of the reward system.   This nuanced topic will be undertaken in a future blog post.


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