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Hoop dreams for Hampstead Heath duo in World Croquet Championships

PUBLISHED: 19:18 02 February 2018 | UPDATED: 19:18 02 February 2018

Gabrielle Higgins in croquet action

Gabrielle Higgins in croquet action

Archant

New Zealand adventure for Cordingley and Higgins

Phil Cordingley in croquet action Phil Cordingley in croquet action

Think of the game of croquet and what springs to mind is probably a glorious garden at a stately home, a gentle match and then cucumber sandwiches for tea, writes Dave Evans.

But the reality of this competitive sport is nothing like the Downton Abbey scenario.

Men play against women, there are players from all over the world who take part and two of our own have flown out to New Zealand this week for the World Croquet Championships.

Phil Cordingley and Gabrielle Higgins of the Hampstead Heath Club have been selected for the England team which will pit their skills against the best in the world in Wellington, beginning this weekend.

Croquet player Gabrielle Higgins Croquet player Gabrielle Higgins

And for Phil, 64, it is a return to the higher echelons of the sport and as he says: “It is not just a sport for old gits like me!.

“I had a few years off from the game, but came back last season and have now just about qualified for the team,” said Phil, who lives in Tufnell Park.

“My highest ranking came back in 1988, so it is going to be difficult to do anything this time round. If I can make it to the knockout stage then I will be happy.”

So how did Phil get into the game? Is it a recent thing?

Gabrielle Higgins with one of her croquet trophies Gabrielle Higgins with one of her croquet trophies

“No, I played a lot at school and then when I went to Cambridge and there was a club there,” reflected the retired IT consultant.

“I think the attraction of the game is it is a mix of mental and physical skills. The idea is to get your balls around the lawn, getting through all the hoops and there is a lot of strategy involved.

“Like snooker you have breaks where you can earn extra shots, while your opponent just has to sit there and watch.”

For Gabrielle, croquet is something she has been playing for most of her 39-years after being taught on the vicarage lawn by her father.

Phil Cordingley is off to the World Championships in New Zealand Phil Cordingley is off to the World Championships in New Zealand

Trained as a solicitor, she now works in the offices of the Bishop of Chichester, but still finds time for croquet at the top level.

“It has been hard to practice in the cold and the frost, but myself and Phil have been out on the lawn having a go,” said Gabrielle.

“I love the tactical side of the game and it is one of the few sports where the women take on the men on equal terms, it is not about strength.”

Gabrielle has been at this level for some while, finishing runner-up in the women’s World Championships in 2015 to Miranda Chapman of host club Nottingham.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Gabrielle. “I was 2-1 up, but then she played out of her skin in the last two games, I didn’t get a look in.”

Predictably, it is the Commonwealth countries that provide the majority of the 80 players taking part, but as Gabrielle says, it is not exclusive to them.

“The top countries are Australia, New Zealand, England and the United States, but there is a player from Latvia, entrants from Belgium, Italy, the Czech Republic and Sweden,” said Gabrielle, who lives in Archway.

It will certainly be a proud moment for the Hampstead 
Heath Club, who celebrate their 10th anniversary this year, based in Parliament Hill, but also with 
a lawn in Golders Hill, Camden.

“It is a game anyone can have a go at and it is not expensive,” she said. “Membership is £20 which is a lot cheaper than a golf club. You can hire a lawn for about £3.50 and you don’t need to bring any equipment because it is all provided. Anybody can come along and have a go.

“It is certainly something that the chairman and one of the founders of the club are both representing England at the World Championships.”

The event starts tomorrow Saturday) until February 11, with group stages, followed by a knockout for the top 32 players.

Both Phil and Gabrielle hope to be among those, but for Cordingley, who will turn 65 while he is out there, it is likely to be a great adventure.

“I will do my best to get as far as I can, but after that I am going to cycle round the South Island,” he said.

What a civilised sport!

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