The weather gods were in a good mood for the day, gracing the venue with hot sunshine and light winds for the annual contest between the Oxford and Cambridge croquet teams. The Hurlingham courts were in exceptionally fine condition, even by Hurlingham standards, as they were getting ready for the AC World Championships scheduled to be staged there just a month later. The Hurlingham host Hugh Carlisle was also back from his illness of the previous year, and evidently in good spirits as he welcomed the teams.
Oxford had prevailed in their recent encounters, but this year Cambridge appeared in theory to be slightly the stronger team. Would Cambridge be able to turn the tide?
The Cambridge team arrived in good time, keen for battle, and the Oxford team appeared at exactly 10am. Play commenced at about 10:15 after a short warm-up, with the usual match format of three doubles games in the morning, to be followed by lunch and then six singles in the afternoon, all played to level advanced rules with time-limits of a little under 3 hours.
In the morning doubles progress by both sides was quite slow, and although there were several opportunities for breaks they were typically short-lived before something came unstuck. All the players had some difficulty acclimatising to the speed of the courts, with hoop approaches often misjudged and longer shots often ending up either too short or off the court.
On the top court the Cambridge pair of Finn Sutcliffe and Harry Palmer made a good start, and after a while in spite of a fair amount of interaction had made 3 and 5 hoops respectively while their opponents Tom Mewes and Dan Millard were still both languishing on hoop 1. But finally the Oxford pair started to score, and by half-time they had halved the deficit to 4 hoops. Then for the next hour or so both sides made similar gains, so that with only 15 minutes to go the gap was still just 4 hoops, at which point Oxford's Tom Mewes made a short break which he took to peg. But the Cambridge pair also scored, so that when Tom's score was added to his Oxford partner's - his clip still back on hoop 2 - this wasn't quite enough to match the combined Cambridge score of 15 hoops, leaving the Cambridge pair a victorious 2 hoop margin when time was called.
On the second court the Cambridge brothers Jerome and Julius Gasson also made a good start, and in due course Jerome reached 4-back with a 4-ball break and a decent diagonal spread, albeit temporarily interrupted after missing a pivot after hoop 5 followed by a miss by his Oxford opponent Thomas Cairns. Meanwhile the other Oxford player Charlie Sharpe had also picked up a 4-ball break which came unstuck at 1-back, so by half-time Cambridge had a 5-hoop lead. In the remainder of the game Oxford were unable to catch up, and Cambridge stretched their lead to 11 points when the time limit was reached, with Jerome pegging out after including a peel of partner through 6. Evidently fraternal relations were good in the Gasson family.
On the third court progress was even slower, and although at one point Cambridge's Felix O'Rahilly managed to make 4 hoops in a break, by half time only 7 hoops had been made in aggregate by both sides, 5 by Felix and 2 by Oxford's Greg Simond, with Gus Smith (Oxford) and Joseph Steane (Cambridge) both still stuck on hoop 1. The pace then picked up a bit in the remaining time with Joseph progressing to 3-back including a 6-hoop break and with Oxford making 7 hoops, which left Cambridge with a 6-hoop advantage when time was called. So by lunchtime there were no completed games (situation normal for the Varsity match doubles! - the last time a doubles game was actually completed was back in 2015) but Cambridge had established a clear 3-0 lead and good prospects for the match.
The Hurlingham club generously provided lunches for the visitors, supported by a large contingent of Oxbridge alumni which this year comfortably outnumbered the players, and as usual when combined with the freely flowing wine and beer it helped the players to shed their inhibitions in the afternoon singles that followed.
With Cambridge needing only two wins for the match from the six afternoon singles, was there a chance of an upset? As the match resumed after lunch, for a while it looked like there might be, as Oxford initially gained the upper hand in almost every game. In particular in the third game Felix O'Rahilly was missing too many shots and was having a tough time against Greg Simond. So although as the games evolved Cambridge started to claw their way back into some of them, by half time Oxford were still ahead in three and level in the fourth, while Cambridge's lead in the other two games was still small and vulnerable. Oxford's second player Charlie Sharpe then began to get into his stride in his game against Jerome Gasson, making a further 18 points while Jerome could only manage another 4, and was the first to finish with a +17 win for Oxford. Match score now 3-1 to Cambridge.
Not long afterwards in the third game Felix was unable to capitalise on a good break opportunity, once again coming unstuck after a few hoops, and Greg soon finished with an even more convincing +21 win for Oxford. Match score now 3-2 to Cambridge, and with Oxford's top player Tom Mewes also then with the innings and on a break against Finn Sutcliffe the match result started to look wide open.
But croquet is a strange game, and fortunes can change at any time until it's over. In the top game Finn had managed to make 4-back off a long roll approach with a break to peg available, but missed his penult pioneer; Tom hit with his lift shot, reaching 4-back with a straight peel of partner through 2-back on the way. Finn missed the lift shot, but Tom then proceeded to croquet a ball off the court! - conceding the innings back to Finn, who made 4-back with his second ball. By now, with all four balls approaching a finish, the game hinged on just a few critical shots. After mis-approaching penult from nearby followed by some spectacular long-distance roquets and long take-off hoop approaches, Tom reached peg and rover to draw level with Finn with a laid rush on partner to rover from near penult; but in doing so he conceded a lift and a double target from baulk. Finn held his nerve, hit with the decisive lift shot and scored his last 3 points to win +3. Score now 4-2 to Cambridge, who only needed one more win from the remaining three games to secure victory.
As the time limit approached a Cambridge win now seemed more likely, since in the fifth game Julius Gasson had meanwhile managed to stretch his lead, a lead which indeed he held onto until he finished +10 on time, and finally secured the match for Cambridge. In the remaining two games the scores were very close, but as the final minutes ticked away both Cambridge players Joseph Steane and Harry Palmer gained the innings, and both made a few crucial hoops to win on time by +2 and +3 respectively.
So the final match result was 7-2 to Cambridge, a score-line which flattered what had actually been a pretty close contest all along. Indeed the aggregate net point count across all 9 games was actually +1 to Oxford!
Many thanks to the Hurlingham club and its members for once again hosting an enjoyable and entertaining Varsity contest.
|Scores (Cambridge names first)
all games Level Advanced