Clive has fun...at Cowdray Park Polo Club
PUBLISHED: 10:02 21 March 2012 | UPDATED: 19:49 20 February 2013
Clive Agran is looking for fun at Cowdray Park but admits to finding it a little bit confusing
Rather nervous when I first moved to Sussex in 1992 as to how I would cope with the countryside, I now feel altogether more confident and can even walk thorough a field full of cows er, I mean, cattle without any obvious signs of panic. Also of some concern was how the natives would regard a refugee from London. Not being a commuter has helped the assimilation process and Ive worked pretty hard at getting the locals to like me.
Ive sat through any number of shows at the village hall, generously contributed several old sweaters to jumble sales and even attended a couple of parish council meetings. It certainly would have helped if I had been a churchgoer but both God and the regulars can surely sniff out a hypocrite and so I go to the pub instead where, frankly, I feel much more comfortable.
Although I didnt actually attend any of the Countryside Alliance marches in London, I genuinely have a great deal of sympathy for their cause and happily signed petitions in support of fox hunting. Apart from not having moved to Sussex much earlier in my life, my principal regret has been that I dont ride. Had I ridden, you see, I believe I would have risen quite quickly through the ranks of Sussex society. An inability to identify a fetlock or converse on matters equestrian is seriously limiting my upward social mobility.
Apart from rubbing shoulders with genuine toffs and hyphenated readers of this excellent magazine, you might wonder what Im missing. If asked, I would simply point to polo at Cowdray Park near Midhurst, which is precisely where I would now like to be in my life. And the great news is that Ive finally made it here in a somewhat belated effort to create a favourable impression with the people who matter.
Apart from the extraordinarily pretty setting, what strikes me first as I park my ageing Mondeo in an otherwise immaculate row of Range Rovers, is the vastness of the pitch. Although it almost certainly isnt, it looks about a mile long and half-a-mile wide. Its also perfectly flat and remarkably lush. The grandstand looks woefully out of proportion and if the pitch is 50 times the size of Wembley, then its about 1/50th the size of even a Division Two stand. Whilst there are no executive boxes there are a number of tables and chairs where those who would ordinarily sit in executive boxes if they were to go to a football match are being served lunch.
Other spectators around the ground on the terraces are mostly picnicking. Some of the more desirable spots are numbered and have been reserved. For those who havent brought food, there are various stalls selling sausages and the like while other retail outlets are flogging clothes, polo sticks, cuddly toys, etc. Theres a demonstration of how to dance the tango, children are playing everywhere and the happy atmosphere is akin to an upmarket village fete.
As well as all the fun, of course, theres the slightly more serious business of an international polo match between England and South America. Now, I know what youre thinking how come a little country like England can take on the combined might of a colossal continent like South America? Because I know nothing about polo, I cant answer that but Im assured that the handicapping system will ensure an equal contest.
Every player has a handicap. Curiously, the worst players are minus two and the Leonel Messis of the polo world are ten. This is a 28 handicap match, which means that the players handicaps should add up to 28. South Americas do but Englands fall one short and so are given half-a-goal start. This strikes me as a very sensible system that FIFA might consider introducing at the next World Cup. Kicking off against, say, Brazil already one or two up should give our brave boys in white a better chance of success.
There are four players on a polo team plus quite a few horses, which for some reason are called ponies even though they obviously arent. Although Im wondering if the ponies have to be respectively English and South American as well, I dont like to ask what I suspect might be an embarrassing question. However, I do summon up the courage to enquire what the start of a polo match is called since it cant surely be kick-off. I was hoping it might be chukk-off but perhaps that sounds too much like a Russian author. Rather disappointingly, its throw-in as one of the two umpires lobs the ball in to get the game underway.
The only thing I am absolutely certain about is that the match is divided into chukkas. Each chukka lasts seven-and-a-half minutes, presumably because thats how long it took to make a cup of tea in Calcutta, except the final chukka, which curiously is just seven minutes. It would appear that the number of chukkas in a game is flexible.
Normally, its six but today its going to be five, which makes me wonder when precisely half-time will be taken.
Its perhaps as well that there isnt enough space here for me to go into the rules as I dont really understand them. The principal one, Im reliably informed, is that you mustnt cross an imaginary line between a rider and the ball, in other words prevent a player from reaching the ball by blocking his path. You can, however, run alongside him and nudge him off line.
Okay, its 3.30 and the two teams line up in front of the grandstand for the throw in. South America score first prompting the teams to swap ends so as to nullify any advantage such as the wind or slope that might favour one end. Whatever advantage there was at that end doesnt appear to help England as South America promptly score again.
Apart from the excitement generated by eight ponies thundering up and down, what impresses me most is the extraordinary talent the players possess in being able to ride and hit the ball at the same time. Although they occasionally miss, most of the time they make good contact and thump the ball impressively towards the opponents goal. For those, like me, who dont really understand whats going on, theres a helpful match commentator doing his best to interpret the action.
Even he, however, struggles to explain some of the infringements punished by free kicks and penalties, which almost invariably result in goals. Without a wall or a goalkeeper, its hard to prevent someone scoring from a free hit, especially when he gallops up to the ball and smashes it high in the air. There is no crossbar and so it simply has to pass between the vertical posts in the same way as a penalty or conversion in rugby.
South America are marginally better at doing this than England and by the end of the third chukka theyre leading by five to four-and-a-half. Although were now actually three-fifths of the way through the match, its half-time and spectators are invited onto the pitch to tread-in. Its not easy to find a decent divot but this is evidently an important part of the ritual so I try and do my bit.
England battle bravely for the last couple of chukkas but South America canter to a reasonably comfortable nine to six-and-a-half victory and take home the St Regis International Cup. I take home a better understanding of polo I think.
Cowdray Park Polo Club
Easebourne, Midhurst, West Sussex GU29 0AQ
T: 01730 813257