It was all a world away from the frenzied hype of Euro 2020 gripping the nation. But on five beautifully manicured and tended lawns at the East Dorset Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in sedate surroundings and baking heat, England have already lifted a trophy earlier in the week.
And ahead of the hugely anticipated clash against Scotland at Wembley on Friday night, a marker has been laid down ahead of the main event by England’s mallet-wielding Five Lions.
While hundreds of thousands were heading off for the nearby beaches at Bournemouth and Sandbanks, England’s croquet team were competing in Poole with Scotland, Wales and a hastily convened ‘Bombardiers’ team of Under-25 players with Ireland unable to beat the travel restrictions for a Home Internationals challenge.
The hazy still was occasionally punctuated with the wooden clunk of ball on ball, and from further away the thwack of tennis balls before those trying out the clay disappeared to watch Novak Djokovic show how it was done in the French Open final.
This reporter’s experience of childhood croquet was limited to desperately trying to make the balls run straight on a small, rutted and patchy back garden lawn, and more often than not watching them take the considerable camber and rolling off into the waiting flower beds.
But at this level the game is an exercise in precision, tactics, strategy and ruthlessness. Make no mistake, croquet – an activity that still conjures up cliched images of cucumber sandwiches and Pimm’s - can be evil. You get your foot on the opponent’s throat, and keep it there.
In one of several parallels with snooker, a mistake will see players awaiting a next turn that could easily be half an hour away, though they have a far healthier glow about them then their pasty-faced cue-sports counterparts, since that down-time takes place sitting outside on wooden court-side seats smothered in sunscreen and soaking up the rays.
And finishing with a ‘Triple Peel’ flourish, taking both of your balls through the last three hoops together all in the same turn and then knocking them against the stick to win the game, is an achievement closer to a snooker maximum 147 than a more run-of-the-mill century break.
The successful England team were led by their captain David ‘The Beast’ Maugham, with a team made up of No1 player Samir Patel, Dominic Nunns, Mark Suter and Nick Parish – winning all three of their matches to end up as both International Challenge winners and Home International champions, wrapping things up just about as England beat Croatia at Wembley.
Like most sports, croquet has been badly hit over the past 16 months as England’s No1 player for the event, Samir Patel, was quick to recognise. He said, “With everything that has happened during the Covid pandemic and the cancellation of last year’s event, it was great to finally be back on a croquet court, playing for England.”
And there are clear challenges in trying to popularise the sport. One leading player once told me that the images in national newspapers in 2006 of former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott leaning on his mallet at his official country mansion retreat of Dorneywood set the game’s image back “by about 20 years”.
And as with golf and cricket, the sport requires space in a country where the pressures to develop and build new houses are never very far away.
The upper echelons of the world rankings are dominated by players from England, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Scotland and Wales. And in the clash of the ‘Auld Enemy’ in Poole it was the host country that came out on top 3-2 in a thriller.
Gareth Southgate and Harry Kane would almost certainly not have been paying close attention to events on the south coast – but can England’s success be an omen for a higher-octane repeat collision on Friday at Wembley?
A similar double of beating Scotland and then lifting the trophy at the end of the tournament would go down very nicely in many quarters.