THIS week Angela speaks to Matt Holmes who took up croquet for a bit of fun and is now one of the best players in the region

JUST five years after starting to play the historic sport of croquet Matt Holmes has gone from being a novice to one of the country’s top prospects.

And if you thought of the skilful game as one more likely seen at Downtown Abbey than downtown Radcliffe you’d be wrong, because Coronation Park is the home of thriving Bury Croquet Club. In fact, the sport is doing so well around Bury and Bolton that the club has just taken over new courts in Whitehead Park.

Matt’s first brush with croquet came as a teenager in his native Edgbaston when a group of friends went along to “have a go” at the sport in an informal session. “We just messed about but I quite enjoyed the game,” said Matt.

He is happy to admit he wasn’t at all sporty at school. “I was a bit of a beanpole so they put me in the second row at rugby but I didn’t really enjoy it,” he says. “I started playing hockey but, being so tall, it hurt my back.”

He came to Manchester to take his degree, liked the area and decided to settle here. He’s married to Lysha, and the couple have two daughters, Isabelle, aged nine, and six year-old Lilia who all live in Ramsbottom.

Matt has tried a variety of sports including scuba diving and later bought a motorbike. “When the girls came along, though, my wife felt the bike was too dangerous so I looked around for another past-time,” he said.

“I wanted something not very athletic, that I could do in the sunshine during the Summer only and which had something strategic about it.”

Matt thought about croquet and, as luck would have it, at that time there was an open day at Bury Croquet Club. “I went along and they were very welcoming,” recalled Matt. “They showed me what to do and, to be honest, I took to it straight away.”

Croquet is reputed to have started in Ireland in the 1830s before coming to England during the 1850s.

It flourished, not least because women could also play it, and it took on a genteel image but suffered when lawn tennis was introduced.

It’s still popular today, however, with clubs all over the North West and around the country.

“All you really need are the right shoes because clubs tend to have their own mallets, hoops and balls,” added the 41-year-old.

“Mind you, you might soon want your own mallet which costs anything from £150 to £400.”

For Matt, the combination of snooker and golf that makes up a croquet match soon became addictive.

“The great thing about croquet is that you have a handicap system, like golf, so you can get a game with everyone and also try to cut down on your handicap,” he explained.

With a good eye and an accurate swing, Matt was soon improving and whittled his handicap down from 24 to scratch within three years.

He has become very successful in both individual and team events to become one of the sport’s top regional players and has recently been training with the Great Britain team.

“It’s a very absorbing and enjoyable sport,” he said, “and open to anyone of any age.”

Plainly, what it’s not is just players bashing a ball through hoops.

“It’s quite tactical and, like snooker, while you’re still on the court you can be scoring and make quite a high break,” he added.

He would love an England place, to play in the McRobertson Shield against other nations like America, Australia and New Zealand. But in the meantime, he’s also content to enjoy the game of hoops that started as an elite past-time but today represents a fast-growing sport.

To find out more information check out burycroquetclubawardspace. com.