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Dr Ian Plummer

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Gateball mallet with a 50p coin for scaleA cold January Saturday saw twenty or so Surbiton Club croquet players being introduced to the intricacies of gateball - a game involving mallets, balls and hoops played by millions of people throughout Asia, South America and Australia. 

So what did we have to play with?

Hoops, balls and mallet wielded by Nigel PolehillThe mallets were light-weight and puny – about 30” long with 1¼” diameter 7.5” heads.  They had little weight in the head and hence were difficult to swing.  10 numbered balls (5 white and 5 red, ~3” diameter) seemed to be the children of an illicit liaison between a billiard ball and a fugitive small croquet ball from a garage forecourt set. Then the hoops, three of them, gaped 10” wide and ~8” tall – so big for such small balls!  Two gateball courts will readily fit on a standard croquet lawn. Alex Parks, the affable Australian gateball coach, brought enough kit for all and instructed with evangelical zeal and complete disregard for the freezing temperatures. For those interested in the overview of the game see the article by James Hawkins in the Croquet Gazette (2002).

So what’s it all about? 

First impressions are that it has similarities with  snooker and it is heaps more interesting than hoop ball (aka golf croquet if you wish to perpetuate the near oxymoronic misnomer). Why snooker? With so many balls on the lawn there are not the formal set-pieces of Association games such as the four-ball break.  There are still croquet-like actions: the equivalents of roquets, croquets (called 'sparking') and continuation strokes after hoop runs. Indeed some of its practices seem to lurk between the American and Association rules.  It’s a sequence game, balls cannot be rushed off the lawn and you can end up dead on balls across turns. 
Gateball at the Surbiton ClubThe fun and the tactics arise from the consequences of 'roqueting'.  The first mind-bender is that the roqueted ball is brought back to the striker’s ball after the roquet – its where your ball ends up in a roquet which is significant.  Once the balls are arranged for the croquet the stroke your place your foot firmly on your ball and strike it sending the other ball to somewhere useful – this is normally off the lawn if it is an opponent’s ball or towards other balls of your colour for those of your own side. A ball sent off the lawn remains off the court and cannot roquet or hoop run on its next turn - a sin bin for balls! If you combine actions which earn a continuation stroke – say a hoop run in which your ball collides with two balls on the far side – you store up the continuation strokes.  By accumulating these free strokes a good player can hop around the court like a practiced draughts player sparking the opponents off the lawn and peeling their side’s balls through their hoops. 
Electronic totaliser to track each ball's progressShort time limits, typically 30 minutes per game and 10 seconds for each stroke make this a fast-paced game.  The teams of up to 5 players are organised  by their captain who guide’s his teams tactics but there is no handicap system.

Should we get interested?

Certainly! An introduction to the game is a great focal point event and fun.  It has lots of strategy separating it from more banal mallet recreations. It is unfortunate that standard croquet kit cannot be substituted. A simple gateball set would be in the order of a few hundred pounds.

Ian 20.i.9

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Updated 28.i.16
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