Monstrous Mallet Medley Makes Local History at Mowbray (Sports Writer Narrowly Fails to Leave Alice In Wonderland References Out Of Croquet Report)

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Molly Muller Medley Cup; East Brisbane Croquet Club; 14-15/12/2013

“One particular of these sharp-shooters, using a busted and trusted old mallet…plays the occasional logic-expanding jump shot that deserves and gets a double-take from a baffled visitor.”

Report by Nicholas Turner 

At 9am on a summer Sunday, the sky over Brisbane’s inner-east looks as static as wallpaper. And, oh, the sun; show it but briefly to the elements and you’ll see the underside of your wrist turn rare-steak pink.

This looks like a perfectly charming day for a bit of low-intensity dilly-dallying on manicured turf, punctuated by Pimms and cucumber sandwiches. But let it be known that your correspondent brings a knuckle-dragging level of ignorance to competition croquet; as well as the notable absence of both cocktails and crustless triangles of white bread, today’s competition is no kind of holiday. Competitors are subjected to a strict, all-day regimen of more-or-less unbroken play, with nowhere but a few scant peripheral shelters to hide under between strokes. As the afternoon wears on, looking out over the plane of hoop-studded green lawn, the scene occasionally recalls Salvador Dali’s desert of melting clocks, only here it’s middle-aged folks in white, and they’re draped over mallets.

Today is the second and final day of an unorthodox competition to which East Brisbane Croquet Club is host. Bringing together the sport’s three main disciplines (‘golf’, ‘ricochet’ and ‘association’) under the single scoring system, this veritable Frankenstein’s monster is the brainchild of one of the gun players on course. The handy prize-pool of $600 (the entire sum of 12 x $50 entry fees, which I’m told is unusually generous) has attracted Brisbane’s elite croquet dozen. They’ve called it the Molly Muller Medley Cup, in honour of the local croquet doyen, who is beheld as a kind of spirit around here if you listen to the way they talk about her.

East Brisbane Croquet Club is a 108-year-old sanctuary nestled just off the arterial road that takes you from the city to the bay. Despite being blue-ribbon real-estate, you could well be forgiven for never having noticed the place. It’s buffered from the main road by a bowls club-turned-African community centre, and from the river by the low-hanging trees of Mowbray Park. The only formal structure is a lowset 1930s clubhouse that’s roughly the dimensions of a mid-sized nightclub bathroom.  Possibly the only people who notice the place are those who spot the small ‘CROQUET’ stencil attached to the river-facing fence during a ferry commute, as well as the the upper-level apartment dwellers in the handful of complexes that have sprung up like wild asparagus around the place and have a nice birds-eye of the three squareish courts.

Indeed, with a bourgeoning international university around the corner, the river a spit across the boundary and the city a $5 cab ride up the road, you can just about hear the hook-beaked and black-feathered developers huddled in the near distance, waiting for the sad nothing of a last heartbeat.

But the club is alive and kicking this morning. With the results of yesterday’s match-ups, the players have been reseeded for the final three rounds.  Though there’ll be some inevitable slips from contention in the final stages of this quiet war of attrition, the cream has already started to rise and settle at the top of the ladder. I am very fortunate to be chaperoned through the idiosyncrasies of both the top players and general play by the day’s referee, who on the odd occasion is called to adjudicate this generally self-policed contest.  He’s a proud, ten-year member of the club, and full of info and analysis.

Players come to croquet from any number of places, I’m told. A common convert is the ageing ex-pool-shark, for whom the game is merely an under-foot version of billiards. Indeed, much of the strategy and skill is the same. These are your ‘touch’ players, supreme in judgement of close-range line and length, and the all-important art of manipulating spin and drag. They can guide the ball through the hoop from angles wherein the ball is too big to fit, applying a little magic dust of tweak and grab. One particular of these sharp-shooters, in orange shorts and a garish Ed Hardy shirt, is the nominal course peacock, all colour and charm and sharpness of tongue; using a busted and trusted old mallet, he plays the occasional logic-expanding jump shot that deserves and gets a double-take from a baffled visitor.

Then there’s the tall man in the green and pink tartan shorts, gold earring and Panama hat. He’s an all-rounder, an international-level Golf Croquet player. In the clubhouse he’s all cheek and innuendo, but out on course he gives nothing away, leaning up on the fence with a tepid glare. He can put the ball pretty much anywhere from pretty much anywhere. But after a formidable show in the morning after which your correspondent cannot fathom him off the podium, he succumbs to a strained calf (the result of attempting to mitigate the athletic advantages of a young player – see below) and probably heat, in a disastrous final round that rewrites the leader board.

Playing alongside him is by decades the youngest player out there, a curly-blonde twenty-something with Harold Miller sunglasses and a pale beard. He, too, has a special way with the mallet, nailing measured shots from near or far, and with a chess-prodigy’s prescience for the next move in the more complicated discipline of Association Croquet. In the rules of today’s medley, all play is limited by time, and so it’s much to the chagrin of the elderly contingent that this spritely buck decides to jog and prance around the course, maximising his shots at the hoops. It’s no coincidence that on a physically gruelling afternoon, the twenty-year plus age advantage proves definitive; this is the eventual prize-getter.

Reading not too far between the lines of my very frank chaperone’s words, it’s clear that beyond a certain level of skill (a level already well achieved by all on course today), competition croquet is a game of mental endurance. There are good moments and bad for everyone, and it’s entirely possible for anyone to play the prefect stroke on occasion, but the best players find a way to keep their mood off the course and ensure that raining does not equal pouring, so to speak. I’m pointed out a skilful middle-aged woman with a friendly grin (by no means in the minority) and a bob of metal-shavings hair. Yesterday it was all going right for her. But today it’s a different story, and God only knows-why. Likewise for the man in little red shorts who’s on his iphone between shots; yesterday it was all too easy and he looked like a plausible title contender, but after a big night at a work Christmas party, they’re coming off the mallet like it’s the tip of a cone. His decadence, at least, is a little easier to diagnose.

Though surely the most profound illustration of this mantra is the fact that the winner of today’s biggest break in the discipline of Ricochet (most consecutive hoops scored in a single turn), is also the last eventual last place getter for overall competition points. It can be a slippery old slope.

I retire to the shaded area outside the clubhouse for the final round of play, mercifully accompanied by a lemon squash, eavesdropping shamelessly on this tight-knit bunch as they warm up for their end-of-year festivities; between some gossip about Miranda Kerr and James Packer (the tabled argument is that they’re really just friends, and that Kerr is not worth all the fuss of an oil painting anyways), my trusted guide rejoins my side to divulge a little local croquet history, armed with a book that was written about the club in its 100th year:

In the early 1900s, the upper middle class ladies of Brisbane needed a pastime and croquet was it. The land was given to the cause as part of a council donation by the family Mowbray. The ladies played in thick dresses that ran to ankle and cuff. And the mallets, which today are slung pendulously between the legs, were then played side-saddle. (Apparently in country Victoria you’ll still find the occasional octogenarian femme who refuses to play in the unladylike way of the modern game.) A century later, the East Brisbane Croquet Club runs on a die-hard membership base of just thirty people (not a misprint – 30). Between the occasional council grant, a local letterbox drop, and hosting social functions where corporate types dress up as playing cards, flamingos and irate cartoon queens, this is how a tiny ember of Brisbane’s cultural history stays aglow.

The competition wraps up in the early afternoon and everyone comes in for sausages and potato salad. The players are visibly depleted but the cold beer and white wine is fair medicine. The trophies (which apparently have been recycled by one of the club’s ex-billiard-playing members, though foolishly I fail to confirm whether the gold figurines are aiming cues or mallets) are laid out on a rickety table as we wait for the results to come in. Then the woman of the hour arrives; Molly Muller descends on the course like a star lowered onto a Christmas tree. She’s elegant in black accessories and a weightless wave of snow-white hair. She talks enthusiastically to those who greet her, both hands on her walking stick, her small gold watch’s face turned inward, bag hanging from her elbow. With her wicked horn-rim glasses, triangular face, tall teeth and dark blood-red lipstick, Molly Muller brings an air of cheeky benevolence to the features of Cruella Deville.

During the presentation, she talks a little about her beloved sport, quotes from players of old, shakes hands and jokes with the prize-getters. Some winners take their chance at centre-stage to thank Molly for her support over the years, her kindness and beauty of spirit. For others it was Molly that first introduced them to the sport. She might well have been the favourite primary-school teacher of every soul at the club this afternoon. Molly smiles generously, with a kind of maternal pride, but she’s shy as the subject of plaudits. There’s clearly much more for your correspondent to learn about this influential figure, but he can safely declare her a genuine grassroots sporting veteran.

Match Day Sausage on Bread Score: 7.5

MDSoB Service Atmosphere: 9.0

MDSoB Price: $10 donation to club

Results: 1st, Tom Kinght; 2nd, Leslie Watson; 3rd, Geoff Jamieson; 4th Terry Ericson. Biggest Margin (20.5), Terry Ericson. Biggest Ricochet Break (7), Greg Wymark.

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