Once faulted for fostering risque play, the game is not stuffy at all.

Had I ever played croquet, he asked. "Maaate!" I thought, though I didn't have the nerve to say it out loud because I knew what he'd say next.

Les Wakley is an amiable and scrupulously courteous Englishman (sees you to your car when you're leaving, that sort of thing) who acts as the publicity officer for Croquet Auckland. He was offering me a chance to try the sport out in anticipation of the "Have A Go" Day they are planning for Sunday.

I didn't tell him that I am something of a croquet veteran, because he probably would recognise the game I had learned to play: with a toy set on the undulating sand and kikuyu surface of a council campground, not always putting my drink down before I took a shot.

At the Epsom Remuera Croquet Club, encircled by old trees at the end of a lane off Gillies Ave, the very faintly spongy browntop lawns are like the proverbial billiard table. A trio of members make room for me to try the simpler version of the game, called golf croquet (association croquet, more tactical, is keeping other players occupied with what looks like grim concentration on the other lawns) and I start swinging.

Advertisement

In common with my beach version, this game allows - indeed requires - players to give equal weight to getting their ball near (and eventually through) the hoop and driving their opponents' balls as far away as possible.

"Don't worry," says Helen Heppner, one of my two opponents. "We'll be kind to you." I'm about to puff my chest out and say "Maaate!" when Les Wakley steps in: "If they are at all kind," he tells me, "it will be a first."

It was a quiet morning at the club last Saturday: the gun players were at the world champs in Mt Maunganui, where two Egyptians tussled in the final. The Egyptians, for reasons no one seemed able to tell me, are the sport's perennial world-beaters, but Kathie Grant, a national rep and qualified coach, who inducted me into the mysteries of the sport, told me that New Zealand is the reigning world champion in association croquet and the world's top male and female players, Chris and Jenny Clarke, are Kiwis.

Any thought that it would be a stuffy and formal place was quickly dashed. The relaxed dress code requires only flat-soled shoes, and cheeky banter was the order of the day.

"Have you got a Gold Card?" my partner Regan Doherty asked me as one of our opponents lined up a shot. "You'll need one to get the bus back from where your ball is about to end up."

Croquet with a rule book is barely 150 years old but its precursors go back to the 15th century. One of its French ancestors, paille maille became pall mall (the London street took that name from a nearby field where the game was played).

From an early stage, it was a gender-integrated game, though the modern between-the-legs swing style was unknown to extravagantly skirted women in the Victoria era. Club member and historian Bruce Heasley shows me a clipping from an 1874 Auckland Star in which the paper criticised those who "find fault with it for its tendency to foster flirtation".

"This we regard as its great charm," the paper editorialised. "There is that soupcon of danger which is necessary to make any English pastime alluring."

One of the appeals, Les Wakley tells me, is that it takes only a few minutes to learn the basics. People who have never played a sport pick it up really quickly, he says, which makes it an ideal social activity for corporates ("The lawyers are the worst," he says. "They are so competitive.")

Like bowls, croquet has its work cut out attracting young blood. The 80-odd clubs nationwide - there are 11 in Auckland - average fewer than 50 members and Wakley accepts that it is primarily a sport for seniors. The mallet makes the ball reachable for people who can't get down to a bowl any more.

"It's gentle exercise with social contact and you can play the game even if you haven't done it before," he says.

That's true, so far as it goes. I will draw a veil over the result of my match though. My excuse is that the grass was just too flat: a few clumps of kikuyu, a pohutukawa root or two, and I would have nailed it.