Thwack!

Expletive!A red croquet ball meandered to the far side of the playing field, moving in the wrong direction and dragging a sour grimace across the doughy face of the woman who had set it in motion. She had missed the first wicket, again.

"Old lady, if you can't get through No. 1, how are we ever going to win?" groused one of her teammates, a sharp-eyed man in a cheap-looking shirt.

The old lady, as Sun Bixia does not particularly like being called, muttered a piquant expletive. Harsh language, coming from a mature woman of 68. But croquet is war in these parts, and there is no time for niceties.

Croquet, or "gate ball" as they call it here, is the game of the moment in China. Among the elderly, anyhow. In cities throughout northern China, retired and not-completely retired people are spending much of their summer days playing it, and they compete with a ferocity that seems almost primal.

At Middle Mountain Park here in Dalian, a coastal metropolis braced by fresh sea air, 10 retirees gather most mornings at a grass-less green, playing against each other in two teams of five. Croquet is becoming popular, as one man put it, for its genteel combination of physical exercise and social activity.

But human nature being what it is, darker impulses have a way of sneaking to the surface. These calm-looking older people become competitive - vicious, even - as soon as play begins.

"That was terrible!" hollered Wang Zhixia at a teammate who missed a shot and who looked wounded by Wang's remark. "Next time, next time," the teammate muttered softly as he looked down, as if to reassure himself.

Now it was Wang's turn. He surveyed the sandy ground like a world-class golfer, checking the angles and using the broad side of his wooden mallet to smooth out the dirt immediately in front of his ball for a clean path.

Swinging the mallet evenly between his ankles, he knocked his croquet ball just hard enough for it to thump someone else's, winning Wang an extra shot and the coveted right to whack his competitor's ball as far away as possible.

Thwack!

The red croquet ball zipped across the field, swift and straight as a cannonball, stopped only by a wall at the perimeter.

"Most fun is hitting someone else's ball," Wang confided later, smirking at the thought. "You push yourself ahead, and them behind, at the same time."

Soon it was Sun's turn again. No go. She missed the first wicket again.

Croquet came to Dalian, and to neighboring cities in China's northeast, with Japanese invaders during World War II. It was a summer pastime for Japanese military officers, but the locals who learned to play had to give it up during China's fanatically leftist years, when it was considered too bourgeois.

Now it is back, promoted by the Dalian Old Cadres Association as a suitable form of exercise for elderly people.

"We're hoping it will be recognized as an official sport by the All-China Sports Federation," said Nie Dongli, an official at the association. "We don't have an answer yet."

To Nie, tough competition among elderly croquet players is perfectly un-der-stand-able.

"They play to win," he said. "You think just because a man is a grandfather he doesn't want to win?"

Croquet is played here with only three wickets and a single post, a simpler version than the game played in backyards in the United States and other countries.

"It's hard enough," grumbled Sun. "Why make it any more complicated?"