AARON WESTERBY OF NEW ZEALAND PASSES BRITS IN WORLD RANKINGS, AND CRITICS QUESTION THE RANKING SYSTEM
by Bob Alman
No silver goblet, no crystal obelisk, not even a big cash purse can equal the one prize a serious player craves above all else - to be acknowledged universally as "the best."
Perhaps more than any other player in the history of the sport - including such legendary greats as Nigel Aspinall and John Solomon - a 27-year-old Brit named Robert Fulford has claimed this prize and held onto it for a long time. His status was not simply a matter of private opinion, but of record, as seen in the "official world rankings."
And now, because Aaron Westerby of New Zealand has edged out Fulford at the top of the rankings - by the slimmest of margins and perhaps only briefly - strong passions have been aroused in a discussion of the justice and fairness of the ranking system.
The system was started as a personal project of Stephen Mulliner in the late 70's, and by 1980 rankings were being published as "end-of-year" rankings in the GAZETTE. In the eighties, assisted by Tim Harrison and others, it began to be referred to as the "UK rankings." It was at a time when Mulliner was much involved in many aspects of the association, and he tinkered with the rankings for several years. Around 1988, Harrison published an article revealing a simplified way of computing updates based largely on the averaged results of the last 20 games - the system still used to calculate the periodical updates.
Gradually, more overseas players and events were added to the system, until finally, in 1995, it was adopted as the official ranking of the World Croquet Federation. Chris Williams now manages the rankings and publishes two "official updates" a year as well as many interim mid-season updates. (This story is based on one such interim and "unofficial" update.)
From the beginning, British players have dominated the top places with few exceptions, as they have dominated international play in the years coinciding with the system's growth and development. No problem there. And in fact, the main incursions on British supremacy in recent years have been made on British soil by players from Commonwealth countries. Reg Bamford, a long-time resident of England from South Africa, has been the most constant non-British threat. He won the British Open three years in a row, beating the "big three" to do it: Fulford, Clarke, and Maugham.
Similarly, it was in England that the Kiwi Aaron Westerby went over the top by defeating Fulford in the recent British Men's Championship.
According to Chris Williams, current tender of the rankings, the last "non-resident" #1 was the New Zealander Joe Hogan, who held the prize for a short time after winning the world championship in 1989.
THE NEW #1 HAS DONE WELL HEAD-TO-HEAD WITH FULFORD
In the major events of the last 16 months in which both Fulford and Westerby have played - including Sonoma in 1996, the British Open in 1996, and the British Men's Championship in 1997 - Westerby has come out ahead two of the three times. (He narrowly lost to Fulford in the fifth game of their finals match of the 1996 British Open.)
According to Steve Jones, another of New Zealand's best players, "Aaron is one of today's top players. I rate him among the top three players of the last 20 years, along with Fulford and Clarke. (Aspinall, Prince, and Jackson are very close.) He has the mix of power and precision which is the mark of a true great."
Jones suggest that Westerby could be even better than he is: "Aaron's problem is that he is sensible: he puts his career before his croquet. [Westerby is an Information Technology consultant.] The worry of making a commitment to both career and croquet without a huge amount of practice or tournament play causes him to be (relatively) inconsistent. Thus, he will often start a tournament slowly and gradually pick up the pace. His concern over not delivering the goods because of lack of practice has cost him many international team appearances through voluntary withdrawals. For example, he made himself unavailable for the 1996 MacRobertson."
Westerby's play at Sonoma in 1996 confirms this. He barely made the cut in the final elimination ladder, but successfully played all the way through it to win every game, getting stronger all the way, finally wiping out the American "holder," Wayne Rodoni, in the final.
Westerby's rise through the rankings, given the sporadic commitment to top-level play his career allows and the brilliant play in a single tournament that put him over the edge, illustrates the main problem with the rankings, in the opinion of many long-time observers.
THE MAIN CRITICISM: THE RANKINGS ARE "FAR TOO VOLATILE"
Richard Hilditch puts it most succinctly: "History wants to record the number one player of 1997 - NOT the number one player on June 20, 1997. The current rankings are far too volatile. Even the end-of-year rankings as they are currently produced [incorporating all the events played in the previous year] are grossly misleading, as they, too, are snapshots which inflate the positions of the leaders on the basis of a successful performance in the last tournament or two."
Many players agree with Hilditch's position. But while the system does lend extra weight to the most recent games played, it also "damps" the value of those recent games in order to make the ranking less volatile and more stable. [See CROQUET WORLD ONLINE MAGAZINE's interview with Chris Williams for an explanation of the mathematics behind the ranking system.]
Stephen Mulliner, acknowledging the complexity of the system and attempting to explain it simply, declares that the most important factors are a player's winning percentage, combined with the standard of the opponent. In other words, how much you gain in the rankings depends on the calibre of the players you beat, as established by their own place in the rankings.
But because of the "weighting" and "damping" factors which must be introduced to make the rankings fair, coherent, and relatively stable, the system becomes a sophisticated mathematical contrivance that nevertheless includes critical factors that are subjective and to some extent arbitrary and artificial. At present, critics are saying that the system is too volatile, but if adjusted in the opposite direction, and one can easily imagine future criticism that would declare the rankings too "static" or inflexible.
FURTHER ADJUSTMENTS ARE POSSIBLE, SAYS WILLIAMS
Chris Williams, manager of the rankings, expresses his willingness to continue to work on improving the system by further experiments and studies: "Richard Hilditch made a suggestion that a player's index should be fixed for the season and all calculations made on that index. I have been aiming to try this out but have not found the time to do so. I'll try to do so over the Winter. However, my gut feeling is that this would introduce new anomalies.
"For example, in 1995," Williams recalls, "Ian Burridge had an exceptionally good season, half-way. Under a fixed index system, he would have been playing off a relatively low index all season, and so during his 'good' spell, he would have been gaining a lot more points than under the current system. In 1996, he would have started on a HIGH index and so would have lost even more than he actually did."
Until God comes down in a cloud of white mist and lays her hand on the player thus anointed as "the best," it is likely that critics of the official world rankings will persist in declaring them "meaningless," and will proceed to cite logical reasons.
In the meantime, some critics, including Ian Burridge, chairman of the CA Selection Committee, have suggested that the ranking system should match PERCEPTIONS of who is the "best" player. Mulliner, taking issue with one such comment on the Nottingham Board, demurs: "This is simply wrong....A ranking system measures relative success, not relative "goodness."at croquet - although the two are usually high correlated. [This point of view] contains a dangerous element in that it seeks to lose or underplay the objectivity that is a numerical system's greatest advantage."
IS SAMPRAS "THE BEST" AT TENNIS? IS FULFORD "THE BEST" IN CROQUET?
"It is very easy for even well informed human observers to immunize themselves from changing facts," Mulliner continues. "I suspect that Ian and others will regard Fulford as the best player in the world for quite some time after that ceases to be the case. If a reasonable number of people were asked who was the best tennis player in the world, it is likely that most would say Pete Sampras, because he has been the best for so long. But according to recent pre-Wimbleton press, this is in great doubt when his form over the last 12 months is examined."
When British critics proclaim, however seriously, passionately, and reasonably, that the WCF world rankings are "meaningless," their rhetoric should not be taken literally, because, in fact, the rankings are the only rankings we have, and they obviously have a great deal of meaning in the world of croquet. They figure importantly in selections and eligibility for major events. Most tellingly, the rankings are taken seriously by most croquet players the world over - not even to mention the press. When a player achieves the summit of the ranking list, most of us are inclined to acknowledge that he is, indeed, "the best croquet player in the world."
Although a man of temperate disposition, Bill Lamb, former head of the CA Council, has also declared the rankings "meaningless." But he hastens to add that he is referring only to a narrow range of 50 points within some 2800 in the grading. He suggest, in other words, that measuring the differences between players within 50 points, is "meaningless." But when one considers that only four players are within that 50-point range at the top, Lamb's declarations is seen as not all that radical. The grading points at the top are:
Ian Westerby - 2753
In closing his comments on the Nottingham Board on this subject, Lamb concludes, "But does it really matter? Those who understand [the system] will not be taken in. And those who don't, can get a nice feeling from seeing their name there at, say, number 210 in the world. I understand the concern if it comes to selecting players for a world championship. But isn't the ranking list better than some past criteria? Wouldn't it create interest to have some women playing, or giving a wild card to some developing (in croquet terms) country?"
THE OTHER MAIN PROBLEM: COMBINING NATIONAL PLAYER "POOLS"
Besides the presumed mathematical kinks in the present ranking system, there is another "problem" that cannot be effectively addressed by mathematical manipulations, no matter how sophisticated. This criticism deals with an imprecision inherent in merging distant and disparate "pools" of players into one list.
Burridge comments that the world list is not a single list at all, but four or five lists melded together. Burridge and others have commented that the ranking list should include only "international players."
But a close look at the schedules of the top players will reveal that they usually choose the "international events" to play in, given their limited time availability, and in fact, the critical shifts in the top rankings usually come as a consequence of major events with significant "international" representation.
THE WORLD RANKING LIST CONSTITUTES MANY NATIONAL LISTS
Moreover, limiting the ranking list to "international" events and players would deny most croquet playing countries any list at on by which to rank their players in International rules. This includes the United States and Canada, with 24 players on the current interim world ranking - which constitutes the current AMERICAN ranking in the International rules game.
1. #13 - John Taves 2. #32 - Jerry Stark 3. #33 - Wayne Rodoni 4. #40 - Mik Mehas 5. #68 - Phil Arnold 6. #88 - Don Fournier, Jr. 7. #94 - Erv Peterson 8. #96 - Ray Bell 9. #103 - Doug Grimsley 10. #122 - Rory Kelley 11. #140 - Paul Scott 12. #145 - Jacques Fornier 13. #148 - Britt Ruby 14. #150 - Carl Hanson 15. #156 - Robert Rebuschatis 16. #164 - Pat Roach 17. #166 - Rhys Thomas 18. #173 - Leo McBride (Canada) 19. #180 - Bill Berne 20. #182 - Charlie Smith 21. #203 - Rich Lamm 22. #218 - Ren Kraft 23. #221 - Mack Penwell 24. #228 - Richard Powell
John Taves' claim to number 13 on the list equals Jerry Stark's attainment of that rank in mid-1996. It's the highest mark Americans have attained, and it's likely Taves won't stay there long, as he was bested by Stark in their latest head-to-head in Oregon in a short field of top players. [See our story on The Resort At the Mountain Invitational.]
Taves, too, is skeptical of the ranking list's ability to equalize playing levels at the top around the world. "The rankings can be misleading if there isn't enough mixing between the players," he says. "If some players played only against each other and one person went undefeated over many games, and the results were included in the world ranking, the player that went undefeated would be ranked #1 in the world. The system has no information that compares these players to the other players in the world, so the fact that the player is at the top of the list is meaningless."
There's that damning word again: "meaningless."
But Taves goes on to make a more disturbing point: "The game of croquet reduces the difference between Robert Fulford and me, for example. Robert is much, much better than I am, but his RECORD is only a little better than mine. He can do sextuple peels and generally run breaks and triple peels with a lot more control than I can. Unfortunately it doesn't matter [doesn't reflect in the rankings] that Robert frequently takes his continuation shot to run a hoop from in the jaws of that hoop, whereas I usually take a two-foot hoop shot. Robert's control lets him do much better leaves, including POPs, and run more controlled breaks. But so what, we still both leave a similar 13- to 17-yard shot at the end of the break.
IS THE PROBLEM NOT IN THE RANKINGS, BUT IN THE GAME ITSELF?
Here's the clincher: "We need to play a more difficult game," Taves asserts, "so that Robert's superior skills give him a much, much better record than me. The 14-point game is a move in the right direction. On average a 14-point game has more difficult break-building play and more straight peels in the time it takes to play the game than the 26-point game."
These comments, reflecting Fulford's own observations on the merits of the 14-point game (see Fulford interview), suggest that the problem with the ranking system is even worse than most critics had feared - because the game used to evaluate who is "the best croquet player" is not, as it is generally played, the best vehicle to use for producing the data that goes into the mathematic determination of the rankings.
It is at about this point - when we must begin to consider scrapping the game itself because it is not capable of producing rankings of unimpeachable mathematical certainty - that the examination of the flaws of the ranking system approaches the point of absurdity.
Ian Burridge, in the midst of the recent furious debate on the Nottingham Board, said plaintively (if one may speak "plaintively via E-mail), "If we don't act soon it will be too late, and we will be falling into the 'that's the way it's always been' trap."
It's already too late. Mr. Burridge can be forgiven for not knowing that, because his own view from the heights somewhat below the summit (at #44) still lacks a certain perspective. There may be discussion, experiments, and some further fiddling around with the system from time to time, but through it all, the world rankings are valid because they ARE the world rankings. They tell you, as the end result of precise calculations, exactly who is the number one ranked croquet player in the world. They provide ordinary players - and more importantly, the press - with certainty on this point of "fact."
BEYOND THE 2700 GRADE LIES THE ROYAL COURT OF CROQUET
This reporter confesses to a woeful lack of understanding of the mathematics that are the underpinning of the ranking system. Like most ordinary club players, I look up to the leaders of the sport, and I follow the rankings as one follows the weather report. I don't know exactly where the rain comes from or why it falls, but I attach importance to a report of impending rain. Though it may be an imprecise prognostication, is not "meaningless."
In the couple of years since the rankings became the official world standard, only one player has broken the 2800 grade - Robert Fulford. In that same period, only five players have broken the 2700 grade - Fulford, Clarke, Maugham, Bamford, and Westerby. Isn't that stability enough for the royal court of croquet?
Look at the three players on the top of the rankings and try to justify putting anyone else besides those three - precisely those three - on the top: (1) Westerby, who has beaten Fulford in two out of three of the last events in which they both played. (2) Fulford, who is, by everyone's account, "the best player in the world." (3) Chris Clarke, current holder of both world singles championships.
Among these few princes of the sport, there must always be a monarch - a first among equals - and a sensible way of choosing precisely who is the King. Long may he reign - but please, not TOO long.
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