Morning Gateball in Nagoya
In my city - Nagoya - we play in the mornings most days from 8.30 to 10.15. We play two games of 25 or 30 minutes each, which we rarely finish to the peg, have a tea break, then play a final game. We play on dirt, at two different locations. One is used in the summer because it is under the expressway and therefore in the shade.
Pet owners tend to walk their dogs over our court and leave footprints, which we have to brush away before the start of play. I've suggested they put up a sign requesting owners to keep their dogs off, but I think my fellow gateballers are too polite for that. I've been to six different gateball locations in Japan and never seen it played on grass yet, although I know major competitions tend to be played on grass.
I joined without hesitation upon hearing that the fee is a dollar a month (even if the exchange rate moves against me, I reckon I'll be okay) and they gave me a members list typed up in Japanese. Only the other day the captain asked me, "Paul san, can you read kanji?" I answered, "Not much," so he said in an amazed voice, "Then, you don't know our names, do you?" To which I replied weakly, "Well, it's not a problem, my Japanese isn't good enough to talk about any of you." I daren't admit I don't even know the name of the club!
One of my Japanese teachers, who speaks a little English, has also joined the club, so I can now ask about tactics (or the name of the club). She told me that one of the members said, "Paul's on our club team and he doesn't even know the rules!"
Gateball's appeal for croquet players
There's a substantial skills overlap for Association Croquet and Golf Croquet players (including hoop running and 'hitting in'), but in addition, there is a strong element of team tactics not present in conventional croquet.
The control of the position of the striker's ball after a roquet, much like the control of the cue ball in snooker, is another skill for novice gateball players to master. So you find yourself attempting to hit the edge of a ball (like a cut rush) to get striker's ball to near others balls which you may then hit and "spark."
You can make a big impression on spectators by sparking one opponent ball into another opponent ball near the boundary to put them both out. Cannons and bombardments are fair lines of play, and with 10 balls on the lawn, the tactical possibilities are rich. Apply your imagination, and the possibilities are virtually endless.
A matter of style: side stance or centre stance
As an established croquet player who has taken up gateball recently, I play "centre style" because I'm accustomed to it; it's the way I've always played and it works for croquet. All the Japanese play "side style" and are fascinated by my style, especially when I play well. Experienced gateball players sometimes try to use it, but generally they can't seem to adapt to centre style and get frustrated and mutter something like, "Eeeeeeeehhh! it's difficult," and revert to side style.
I have heard that the Brazilians also use centre style, but I can't confirm that by personal observation. The results of some kind of controlled study would be most interesting, to compare the utility of side style versus centre style in gateball. The ergonomics of croquet, with its heavier equipment, argue strongly for the gravity-controlled pendulum stroke; however, with lighter mallets and balls, striking the ball from the side might actually prove to be as good or better for gateball than the centre style croquet stroke.
Time constraints are never a problem
While there is a ten-second time limit on playing your shot, it is not a problem because there are nine other people playing before you so you've plenty of time to get to a position at the edge of the court nearest to your ball. The players do not have to consider "thinking" about the shot, because the final choice of shot is up to the team caption, at all times. All the player has to do is to execute - which explains how I've become a reasonably effective gateball player without mastering the rules and tactics. So I've yet to encounter a problem with time constraints. Rest assured, there's nothing in gateball comparable to the running around that takes place in croquet's "speed doubles" or "10:10 games."
Also, there is no need for courtside signage of any kind to keep track of the status of the game because each player is allowed to have his own electronic scorekeeper for all balls in the game, worn like a wristwatch.
What you have to do to win
To win, you must get your team's balls through all three hoops and pegged out before the opposition can do it. There are two teams of five players each, with numbered balls. One team plays with odd numbered red balls (1,3,5,7 and 9), and the other with white, even numbered balls (2,4,6, 8, and 10). Each player wears a bib emblazoned with the number of his ball. The balls are played in strict numerical sequence, which gives rise to tactics such as sending your team's ball #3 close to the opposition's ball #4 because #3 plays before #4 and will be able to hit #4 and "spark" it off the court or use it in some other manner. (This is another similarity to American Rules play, as in "feeding your partner a break.")
The tournaments are community spectacles
I played recently in a minor tournament held in a local park. The opening ceremony, very Japanese and formal, began with local government officials making speeches and taking a few ceremonial shots - usually failing to run hoop one.
Before each game, we all lined up as in a presentation ceremony, in number order (your bib shows the number of your ball), at our starting location. At the end of the tournament there were more speeches and plenty of bowing.
The most notable part of tournaments in Japan is the sheer number of referees; you don't have to stand around with your mallet raised waiting for one to come from four lawns away. They are everywhere, at least three permanently based on each lawn. They give a running commentary of the game, in Japanese - so of course I have no idea what is being said.
Here's a Japanese gateball joke: "Don't suppose you've seen a ref, by any chance, have you, mate?" The answer is, "There should be one along any year now, I believe they wear blue trousers, if you're lucky enough to spot one!" In truth, they're ubiquitous; you can't miss them.
The game is wildly popular and spreading fast
At the 2006 World Championships in Korea there were 96 teams from 13 countries and more than 2000 participants, including players, refs, officials and organisers. Japan, Korea and China were the main contenders.
Big tournaments are played in stadiums in Japan and South America, because there are so many participants.
Just as in croquet, traveling teams tend to be composed of older people, who have the leisure and funds needed to travel and compete. And just as in croquet, the teams that win the Championships tend to be composed of younger players.
Although the sport is played by millions worldwide, it is most popular in Asia and South America. With it's rapid growth, that picture is likely to change dramatically in the 21st Century.
The next world championship, held very four years, is in China in October 2010. There's never been any European representation, so far. Some organizers will try hard to heighten interest in the game in the West, sufficient to produce teams to compete in one of the forthcoming events.
The spread of gateball is unstoppable, inevitable. Croquet players really DO come with an advantage when taking up the game. So, my message to players in the West is: "You may well be 'AC/GC' but are you 'GB?'"
Alex Park, a member of the last Australian world championship gateball team, is studying in London until July 2009. He will be happy to provide free demonstrations at croquet clubs, by request. Alex will bring all the equipment you need and has tape to mark out courts. Don't forget: you can fit two gateball courts onto a single croquet court so it won't take up much space even if you've got a busy winter schedule. For further details or to arrange a visit to your club in the UK, email Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're somewhere else in the world, Alex will try to direct you to the best resource for helping you try out gateball.
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