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Gateball in Shanghai:
Croquet miniaturized, multiplied,
and taken up by millions

by Alex Park
photos courtesy of Sue Leitinger and Alex Park
Posted August 30, 2010

Related Links
Australia's Gateball Website
World Gateball Union
Playing Gateball in Japan, Paul Salisbury, 2009, CROQUET WORLD
Gateball: Croquet's Missing Link? James Hawkins, 2002, CROQUET WORLD


With more than 600 players from four continents and a mega-budget, the 2010 World Gateball Championship in Shanghai, China, lays claim to being the biggest mallet sports tournament in the world. In September, 30 Australians in five teams will be competing, each hoping to be the first to survive the initial qualifying round. Australian gateballer Alex Park previews the event for Croquet World Online, and we'll publish a photo story on the championship after it's over. Alex is a product of Croquet Australia's pioneering of a "mallet sports" strategy to embrace and promote many games under a single banner. As a member of the Canberra Croquet Club, he's well qualified to explain the game played by millions to croquet players who number in the mere thousands.

Japanese Gateball players mostly retain their "golf-style" technique, while other Asian teams have begun to adopt the croquet-influenced "centre stance" the Australians have brought to the game.
Although Gateball was invented in 1947, the first World Championship wasn't until 1986, played in Hokkaido, Japan, with teams from Brazil, China, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Korea and the USA. Since then the championships have become a permanent fixture on the international Gateball circuit, held every four years in the past decade, in Hawaii (1998); Toyama, Japan (2002); and Jeju, South Korea (2006). The 10th World Championship will be played on September 17-19 2010 in Shanghai, China.

In 2010 there are 96 teams representing Australia, Brazil, China, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Macau, Paraguay, the Philippines, South Korea, Russia and the USA. Most of the teams are from China, Japan, South Korea, Brazil and Chinese Taipei with each allocated 12 or more places, based on their respective populations of ranked competitors. Australia, Hong Kong and Macau are all sending five, while India, Paraguay, the Philippines and Russia will complete the blocks with a couple of teams each.

Watch out for Japan and China

TEAM ALLOCATIONS
FOR THE SHANGHAI CHAMPIONSHIPS
Australia 5
Brazil 15
China (host) 14
Hong Kong 5
India 1
Indonesia 2
Japan 15
Macau 5
Paraguay 2
Philippines 2
Russia 2
South Korea 12
Taiwan 12
USA 4
Based on past performance, the Japanese teams will be the ones to beat. Japanese teams have won most of the past championships, including an unbelievable three-championship winning streak by the Greenpia Tomonokai team in 1994, 1998 and 2002. The Japanese teams are renowned for playing highly defensive games, often grouping their balls tight to the outline [boundary] while setting up double touches (which result in two consecutive continuation shots) to score points. Several Japanese teams include teenage players with a much older captain well versed in strategy.

This year is also likely to see a strong showing from the local Chinese teams. China now boasts the largest Gateball playing population, estimated in the millions, and competition among 200 players in the national tournament to qualify for the 2010 team was fierce. The Chinese have also won many international tournaments, including the Australian Gateball Championships in 2007.

This nattily-uniformed Australian team at the 2006 World Championship in Jeju, Korea, stood out for their appearance alone - they were among the few Caucasian teams, and comparatively youthful in the field. In 2010, the Aussies aim to qualify for the final rounds with at least one of their five teams.

Australia's involvement in the World Championships has had a surprising impact on the way Gateball is played. Croquet Australia has godfathered Gateball's widespread introduction to the Australian continent. Because most of the Australian Gateballers were introduced to the game through croquet clubs, most play "croquet style" (front on) rather than the "golf style" (side on) traditionally preferred by the Japanese. Since Australians made their first appearance at the 1998 World Championship - the same year Croquet Australia adopted the "mallet sports" strategy of development - the croquet technique has been spreading throughout the Gateball world, including players in China and Korea who now also play croquet-style.

Like most Australian players introduced to Gateball through affiliated croquet clubs, this one hits centre-style during a Gateball championship on the Canberra Croquet Club courts, in contrast to most Gateball players in Asia who use the traditional "golf-style" side-stroke.
While Australians teams have often suffered from limited experience playing against the highly-strategic Japanese teams, international competition has rapidly improved the antipodean's game. Although no Australian team has never made it past the group stages, (the "qualifying rounds") several have won group matches. The most successful Australian team, the Brunswick Wombats, won two of their three group matches at the 2002 World Championship in Toyama, Japan. In 2006, the team from Canberra managed to defeat Chinese Taipei in their second match. While the Canberrans did not progress beyond the group stage, they were pleased to cheer on the Chinese Taipei team, who managed to progress to the grand final and were only narrowly beaten by Osaka Midori from Japan.

Tournament structure makes every game vital

As in past World Championships, this year's event will involve a round-robin group stage followed by a single-elimination knockout stage. The format of the tournament means that most teams will play only three matches during the World Championship, which is organized to complete in only three days. A Gateball match lasts only thirty minutes, so three games doesn't yield much playing time.

Nevertheless, the courts are available for teams to practice for three days before the tournament, so there's plenty of time for players to adjust to the courts and get a chance to compete against other teams. And despite the cut-throat nature of the event, it does manage to incorporate 167 matches in just two days of competition.

"Sparking" in Gateball is similar to "sending" the ball in the traditional backyard croquet game, but different. It requires the striker to hold down his own striker's ball and to position the "ball-in-hand" just struck to be sent to a targeted point when the striker hits his own ball (a reverse of the ball-in-hand positions in conventional croquet), which must stay in place on the lawn.

The Shanghai venue impresses more than the courts

GATEBALL BASICS
Gateball is a mallet team sport similar to croquet.
Played on a rectangular court 20–25 meters long and 15–20 meters wide.
Each court has three gates and a goal pole.
The game is played by two teams (red and white) of five players.
Each player has a numbered ball corresponding to their playing order. The odd-numbered balls are red and the even-numbered balls are white.
Teams score one point for each ball hit through a gate and two points for hitting the goal pole.
A game of gateball is timed to last for thirty minutes.
Players only have ten seconds to complete each shot. the winner is the team with the most points at the end of the game.
 

For more details see www.gateball.com.au

The competition will be played at the Gaodong Town Gateball Park in Shanghai. While it is difficult to find information about the park, photos on the World Gateball Union website show an impressive building complete with an imposing, several-meters-high Gateball mallet statue. The centre also boasts a number of covered Astroturf courts; however, the competition itself will be held on played on natural grass lawns within the complex.

It's likely that the lawns will be much rougher and with longer grass that the typical Association-affiliated Western croquet lawns. The last World Championships, in Jeju, South Korea, were played on a soccer oval previously used several months earlier in the 2006 (Football) World Cup. The grass was several centimeters long and the ground uneven in places. Astonishingly, the surface had little impact on the top Asian teams' ability to regularly hit ten- to fifteen-meter shots with apparent ease.

Learning to play on different types of courts and being able to adapt quickly to different conditions is one of the challenges of Gateball. Like tennis, Gateball is played on many different surfaces around the world, including Astroturf, clay, gravel and even, with special equipment, on cement. To prepare for play on longer grass, several Australian teams have been venturing beyond their home croquet clubs to practice.

The referees are professionals - and dashing

Referees are a conspicuous part of any international Gateball tournament. There are up to four officials per court, traditionally dressed in light blue blazers with white gloves to clearly distinguish them from the players, who are required to wear matching uniforms - usually including bright-colored shirts and baseball caps. Each game is overseen by a chief referee, who ensures the game moves quickly by calling each player as his or her turn arrives and enforcing the ten-second rule. The chief referee is supported by an assistant referee, recorder (for scoring) and lines person.

The Championship embrace Olympian-scale spectacle

Teammates discuss tactics while one prepares to "spark" after a touch shot - a "hit-in" or "roquet" in conventional croquet parlance.
If previous events are any indication, the World Championships in Shanghai will involve some spectacular entertainment off the court. In 2006, players were treated to a Korean banquet and cultural performance, replete with the surreal experience of the World Gateball Union flag being lowered onto the stage in the midst of flashing lights, flames and disco music. Gateball tournaments are also generally opened by an invited dignitary hitting a ball through a ceremonial gate. Fortunately for the dignitaries, the ceremonial gates are often almost a meter wide!

Side meetings will consider changes to the rules

Off the courts there will also be a series of officials' meeting, including a formal session of the World Gateball Union. This year the meeting will be particularly significant, as delegates are voting on a proposal to make illegal the "double touches" currently an integral part of Gateball strategy. There will also be meetings of national organizers to share ideas for promoting Gateball everywhere, including the virgin West.

You can follow the championship online…and on TV! While the championships are unlikely to make much of a splash in Australia, some of the games will be broadcast in Japan through the dedicated Gateball program Super Gateball. The show is a regular feature on a Japanese pay-TV sporting channel and broadcasts the finals as well as interviews with various teams throughout the tournament. In the last championships, one of the Australian teams was interviewed, albeit through two translators (English-Korean, then Korean-Japanese!)

A player follows his ball after successfully passing through gate one. The onlooker labeled #6 is a teammate, the tireless and ubiquitous Tony Hall, former president of the World Croquet Federation. In Gateball, the sides alternate play in strict sequence numbered one through ten, with even numbers designating one team and odd the other. The wide wickets allow for some interesting and fun tactics by players aiming long to achieve an advantageous position on the court for subsequent shots.

Croquet World Online will publish a follow up article about the championship in October. In the meantime, if you want to find out more about the competition, or Gateball in general, you can visit www.gateball.com.au, where you will also find a link to the Australian teams' 2010 World Championship blog.

START GATEBALL AT YOUR CROQUET CLUB

  • Expand your membership offerings with game similar to croquet that is easy to learn, but hard to master.
  • Attract new players with a fast, social game much more space efficient than golf croquet.
  • Lightweight balls and mallets mean that strength is no advantage – everyone can play.
  • A single croquet lawn can accommodate two gateball courts (with up to twenty players) – so there is room for gateball even at the busiest croquet facilities.
  • No need to paint new boundaries; courts are usually marked out using tape or string.
  • Gateball equipment is inexpensive and easy to buy online.
  • For more details and rules in English, see www.gateball.com.au


 
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