Dangerous games

    30 November 2013

    Egyptian croquet players are an indomitable bunch. Interrupt their game with a flurry of tear-gas canisters and they’ll halt proceedings just long enough to remove the offending projectiles from their beautifully manicured lawns.

    That at least is what happened last November when gas aimed at anti-Muslim Brotherhood activists demonstrating outside the Presidential Palace wafted over the walls of a nearby sporting club.

    ‘We went away for a bit, came back, removed the canister and carried on,’ says Essam Hamam, chairman of the Heliopolis Croquet Club, who noted that a number of club members participating in the protests periodically sought respite from the chaos with a quick game and a cup of tea.

    Croquet and violence don’t often mix, but then croquet, more frequently seen as a sedate country pastime, is seldom played in places quite as riotous as Cairo.

    This year in particular there’s been no escaping the dramatic and frequently bloody series of circumstances that culminated in former president Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in July. Cairo’s Shooting Club, home to one of the more successful croquet clubs, was attacked by over 100 football ‘Ultras’ in February, while the prestigious Sporting Club in Alexandria was at one point also inadvertently tear-gassed. El Zohoor Club, steps away from the Rabaa Muslim Brotherhood protest camp, briefly shut up shop when camp inhabitants tried to use its facilities days before the encampment was dispersed with the loss of several hundred lives.

    It’s rare for the vagaries of Cairo life to intrude on the cloistered tranquillity of the sporting clubs, but in navigating the frenzy of Egyptian politics, it’s no wonder croquet has cultivated a cast of intensely colourful characters, and there was none more captivating than Colonel Ahmed Hamroush.

    Hamroush, one of the Free Officers responsible for toppling the monarchy and beating the British out in 1952, dominated the Egyptian croquet scene in its early decades. But far from seeking to expand its appeal much beyond the relatively exclusive Cairo clubs, Hamroush, also chairman of the Egyptian Solidarity Committee, jealously guarded his game.

    ‘He didn’t want the young to play and so wouldn’t let anybody under the age of 21 have a go. He wanted it for him and his friends,’ says Amir Ramsis, President of both the Egyptian and World Croquet Federations, who wrested control of the Egyptian game away from Hamroush, but only after beating off the challenge of the then Minister of Scientific Research, a friend of Hamroush and one of a number of leading government figures to patronise the sport.

    ‘We try not to mix sport and politics,’ Ramsis says, but things haven’t always panned out as planned. Two of Hamroush’s communist friends quit upon Ramsis’s election, fearing, despite his assurances, that his differing political views would spell the end of their time on the committee (there’s certainly a diverse range of political views to be found amongst today’s crop of croquet enthusiasts: ‘Bring back the king,’ one senior player told me).

    Egypt is now grappling with a fierce Nationalist-Islamist rift, and politics once more has had an unfortunate habit of intruding. The security crackdown that followed the brutal dispersal of the protest camps put paid to much of the late summer playing season. A dusk-to-dawn curfew prevented play beyond the blisteringly hot afternoon hours, while blocked bridges and clogged main thoroughfares restricted movement around the city for a time.

    The lone Brotherhood supporter on the croquet committee, Riad, an import/export businessman, is the victim of nothing more than good-natured ribbing, but the grand Gezira Sporting Club was at one point refusing entry to men with the long beards frequently associated with strict religious belief and fully veiled women, according to Egyptian newspaper reports.

    Two months removed from the worst of the summer’s mayhem, and life for most Cairenes has returned to some semblance of normality. At the Gezira Club, once the favoured haunt of the British officers and civil servants during their 70-year occupation, only the wandering feral cats, palm trees and burnt out shell of the Egyptian Football Association headquarters in the background distinguish it from its top London counterparts. But when it comes to competing, the speed, aggression and spectator input set it a world apart.

    ‘Mobile phones always seem to ring close by as one takes a shot. I had a ball-boy put some chewing gum on my ball during one of the matches,’ says Reg Bamford, a decorated croquet international who became only the second non-Egyptian to win the Golf Croquet World Championships in Cairo back in April.

    ‘Sometimes it’s good for the game that we lose. We don’t want the competition to lose interest,’ Amir Ramsis chuckles.

    Egypt has forged its own form of the game, and according to Egyptians at least, their golf croquet version is much more enjoyable than the traditional association form. ‘In ten years, association croquet will be gone,’ Ramsis says, and a number of croquet talking heads concur.

    ‘The Egyptians have perfected what was seen as just a silly practice game and made croquet more entertaining, says Bob Alman, editor of Croquet World magazine. In a tale all too grimly familiar to British sports fans, the Egyptians look set to beat the very Britons who introduced them to the game in the first place. But Association Croquet, it seems, won’t go down without a fight.

    ‘The British don’t accept change. They are not a flexible people,’ says Ramsis.