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A Personal Retrospective on the Croquet Year 1997
by Bob Alman

I live on San Francisco's north waterfront, overlooking the Golden Gate, on the western edge of the North American continent, just three miles from the San Andreas Fault, where two tectonic plates grind together. Though there are excellent croquet clubs and even better players within rushing distance, they are few - yet the correspondents, the writers, the reporters, the tournament managers, the association officers from many points on the globe who keep CROQUET WORLD up to date make us feel we live at the epicenter of our sport.

On my morning run - during a brief respite from El Nino's storms - I surprised myself as well as the actors and technicians filming a Walt Disney movie in the outdoor atrium of the Palace of Fine arts. I waved cheerily and jogged straight through, noting the name of film on the side of a production truck: "Sister." San Francisco is the locale of more movies than L.A., it seems, so for Hollywood, at least, this really is the center of the universe.

With the California economy booming again and the Asian markets collapsing, it looks, for the moment, as though California has regained its stature at the leading edge of hi-tech and popular culture: What happens in California today will happen to YOU tomorrow.

For example: Following the unveiling of Dolly the sheep early in the year, the California Legislature made the state the first where human cloning is illegal - but other states and countries are already following suit in sheeplike imitation. If your strategy for development of an unbeatable croquet team by 2020 is to create and train six Robert Fulford clones, you might have to do it in a small and poor island country in the Carribean.

CROQUET WORLD ONLINE MAGAZINE grew fat in its second year with new content at least once a week, posting more than 140 bylined stories in the year, not counting frequent updates of its many reference features. Many excellent writers made their online debut here, much to the relief of the overworked editors. In one 10-day period - during the WCF World Championship in Bunbury - we put up a record 17 stories, among them Hartley Slater's report on the final game, ground-breaking in its stoke-by-stroke detail.

CO-PUBLICATION AGREEMENTS with all the major on-paper croquet publications were especially active with the English CROQUET GAZETTE, the USCA CROQUET BULLETIN, and the independent American NATIONAL CROQUET CALENDAR. After a long and puzzling hiatus, Australia's national croquet rag has come back under the able editorship of Wendy Davidson with a fresh design and a new name - CROQUET AUSTRALIA.

BRITISH CROQUET'S "BIG SIX" have now become the "big seven", with the addition of Steve Comish to the short list of Englishmen and British residents who are consistently at the top of the world rankings. (The others are Clarke, Fulford, Bamford, Westerby, Mulliner, and Maugham.) Comish displayed awesome hit-in skill in the Solomon Trophy matches in Sherman Oaks, California in April, and he followed up later in the year by winning the President's Cup in Britain. In March in South Africa he gave that country the croquet spectacle of the year (as reported in South Africa's CROQUET CHRONICLE) in winning the Western Province Championship. The hapless runner-up got only two shots in the game; Comish hit in on his second ball, went around to four-back, opponent Mark Suter missed the lift, and Comish tripled and pegged out in his third turn.

THE CENTENNIAL EXHIBIT AT WIMBLEDON, which continues through much of 1998, may help to improve croquet's public image in Britain. For the most part and in most countries, however, the press attitude mirrors popular perception as demonstrated in one entire page of utter nonsense published in the December 8 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, the main sports magazine in the United States.

MIKE TYSON LOST HIS BIG FIGHT in 1997, but not before taking a bite out of Evander Holyfield's ear, explaining, "I was just in a zone." Croquet cannot boast any such impressive feat of violence, but Chris Clarke showed by his sharp jabs at the patriarchs of the sport that he is still zoned out by his avowed mistreatment at the World Championship in France way back in 1995. He went so far as to decline to defend his championship in 1997. Clarke was rebuked by John Solomon in a now-famous speech printed in full in the January/February issue of THE CROQUET GAZETTE (and soon to come on this website) and by WCF Secretary General in the letters column of the CROQUET GAZETTE's November/December issue.

At the same time, former world champion and former editor of the CROQUET GAZETTE John Walters unleashed a series of barbs aimed at both the CA and the WCF and got even less sympathy than Clarke. The organizers and organizations may even have gained from the backlash following these lurid attacks.

Whatever the final disposition of his reputation as a good sport, as a player Chris Clarke set a record in 1997 that may never be matched. He was the title holder of all four of these major tournaments at once: The WCF World Championship (1995), British Opens, President's Cup, and the Sonoma-Cutrer World Championship.

FULFORD REGAINED HIS WORLD CHAMPION TITLE as well as his place at the top of the world rankings by the end of the year - by a hair - but failed to hit the top of the charts in the peel category. That distinction was claimed by Clarke, who scored 53 percent in completed triples in major competition, four percentage points above Fulford, who came in at 49 percent. (The statistics were compiled by Chris Williams, and cover UK players only.)

THE NOTTINGHAM BOARD WAS ABUZZ for much of the year with speculations on (1) who the best player is and (2) how the World Rankings should fairly reflect who is best. Towards the end of the year the patient and much-beleaguered Chris Wiliiams, keeper of the rankings, made an adjustment in the system which reduces somewhat it's volatility at the top; a player will now, presumably, have to perform well over a longer period to be ranked #1.

THE PROBLEM OF TIME was another favorite topic on the board - what to do about slow players, making reliable tournament schedules, and relieving the sheer boredom of games that go on and on. Many alternatives were proposed for managing a chess-clock system, but few have been tested anywhere, much less implemented. What seems to have emerged is stronger support for more serious competition in the 14-point format. Some influential players have even proposed making the 14-point game standard for top competition.

IN THE GENERAL WORLD ORDER - as seen in major competitions in the International Rules game - there is little change. The Brits are solidly on top, New Zealand is second, Australia is third, and the U.S. is fourth. There were some signs this year (at Sonoma-Cutrer and in Bunbury) that the U.S. may be poised to knock off Australia at the MacRobertson in Australia in the Year 2000.

At the Sonoma-Cutrer World Championship, no Australians made it to the play-off ladder with the two surviving Americans, California's Jerry Stark and Wayne Rodoni - who, however, were quickly themselves eliminated, leaving the field to the Brits and the Kiwis. In Bunbury, where the best Australian and American players were consigned to the plate, American's Jacques Fournier and Mik Mehas went all the way to the semi-finals, which were contested by two Australians, who this time, prevailed over the Americans.

THE AUSTRALIAN MEN made no breakthrough in the year, but the Ozzie women appear to be making headway - especially Helene Thurston of Western Australia. And for the first time at Sonoma-Cutrer, a woman - Debbie Cornelius, the top-ranked female in the world - reached the finals, only to be defeated by Chris Clarke and his two-ball strategy.

JOHN TAVES WAS THE AMERICAN who scored an unexpected match victory over Fulford at the Solomon Trophy matches in Sherwood, California, helping to make him the top-ranked American on the world list. Taves' moment of glory brightened an otherwise disappointing showing for the Americans, who had expected more, but did not prepare adequately for meeting the powerful and disciplined British team.

IRELAND'S TEAM DEFEATED THE U.S. narrowly in Palm Beach test matches that were little noted, as the United States team sent to meet the Irish was not nearly as strong as the one which lost to the British in California.

TOP AMERICAN PLAYERS are planning more weekend International Rules competitions - even though the vast majority of croquet played in the United States is American Rules - as well as more major competitions - especially in the West, and specifically in Arizona and California, home to most of the recent International Teams. In 1997, the Meadowood Invitational in California's Napa Valley, under Jerry Stark's direction, switched from American Rules to International Rules. The Arizona Croquet Club has added an April International Rules event. The first North America Match Play Championships have been announced for early September at Sonoma-Cutrer.

"THE TOP PLAYER IN THE UNITED STATES" would be hard to name, because both American and International Rules are played in the United States, there are separate handicap systems for each, and there's no question that a player who is on top in one is not necessary the best in the other. John Osborn is solidly on top of the American Rules game, while John Taves leads Americans in the World Rankings, followed closely by Stark and Rodoni. As the year ends, the USCA is poised to introduce the first system in the world that combines both games in the New USCA Grand Prix - which will be reported and updated frequently in CROQUET WORLD. The system's designers are careful to say that it's a "game," not a ranking. Nevertheless, it's a safe bet that its flaws and its fairness will be heatedly debated in the year to come.

THERE WAS TOO MUCH DEATH in 1997. British croquet players mourned the unexpected death of Stephen Badger, Chairman of Council, in early November. No one could forget the untimely death of the Princess of Wales, which overshadowed the passing of Mother Teresa in India.

THE VENERABLE JAQUES COMPANY, following a factory fire, announced it will no longer manufacture the Eclipse The death of the last composition ball was reported in CROQUET WORLD's longest and most carefully researched story of the year. CROQUET WORLD raised questions about the quality of the replacement plastic ball which have still not been answered by Jaques or anyone by the end of the year. In this case, no news is bad news for Jaques and good news for the South African Barlow, poised to score a virtual worldwide monopoly - except of course for Australia, which remains loyal to it's homegrown Dawson.

NEW ZEALAND STARTED 1997 with Bob Jackson's tie-making 11th victory in the championships. But correspondent Steve Jones says the most memorable moment of the year was John Prince's victory in the President's Invitation event in December. Prince is renowned for his on-court precision, style, and artistry. It was his first major title since 1987 and marked a personal victory for him over a wrist problem which has plagued him since the 70's.

SOUTH AFRICA'S BID TO HOST A WORLD TEAM CHAMPIONSHIP late in 1998 (as announced by Peter Payne from Bunbury in November) signals that country's return as a major player in the post-apartheid era. Preliminary plans call for up to sixteen 3-person teams, playing14-point advanced rules with time limits.

WITH THE COLLAPSE OF EASTERN MARKETS, the 21st is not looking very much the "Asian Century" we have come to expect. This could not be good for croquet, which languishes in Tokyo's Showa Memorial Park while Gateball - the miniature, fast team version of the wicket game played by millions of Asians - shows signs of taking root all around the Pacific and beyond.

THE WORLD CROQUET FEDERATION ended the year with 20 members - the newest being Palestine, which sent three players to the Golf Croquet Championships in Cairo. The Egyptians effectively promoted themselves as a future site for the World Championships in the Association game - although the courts were rather bumpy - and they made a good case for the Egyptian rules as the official ones for future Golf Croquet Championships. Egypt will reportedly put in a bid to host the next World Championships. But no host country has yet signaled a desire to host the 1998 Golf Croquet World Championship, according to WCF Secretary General Chris Hudson.

Prompted by the Australians in Bunbury, a revision of the Laws is at last in process, to be completed within a year. John Riches has identified at least 33 alterations under consideration, most of which are clarifications rather than changes in substance.

It was a good year for croquet. Whether it was an important year in the sport's development must be determined from a look back from a longer perspective, well into the next century. If 1997 turns out to be a watershed year, it could be for any one or more of the following reasons:

  • THE WORLD CROQUET FEDERATION consolidated it's resources, gained strength in the face of sharp criticism, and moved further towards internationalizing the sport by bringing more countries - including non-English-speaking ones - into it's orbit.

  • THE INTERNET as the most efficient and cost-effective marketing tool asserted itself in the establishment and further development of Web sites in several of the major croquet-playing countries - especially the United States and Canada, Australia, and the British Isles. (New Zealand and South Africa have still to catch up to the Cyberspace revolution.) By the end of the year, the USCA Website CROQUET IN AMERICA, interlinked with CROQUET WORLD, was accounting for a majority of public inquiries to the USCA office in Florida. The World Croquet Federation's Website came online in the middle of the year.

  • THE 14-POINT GAME gained adherents in many quarters as a solution to many problems - including scheduling and relieving the tedium of games that go on and on; and at the top level, the predictable and obligatory grind of triple-peeling - though few important 14-point events have been planned.

  • GOLF CROQUET - with a lot of help from the Egyptians - achieved a boost in approval ratings as the game - in one version or another - that could break through both the media and public perception barriers that keep the sport small.

I have hazarded some guesses about the true significance of the 1997 croquet year - optimistic guesses about the future of the sport, as seen from the middle of the 1997/98 El Nino season that is drenching California and spoiling my favorite season for croquet in San Francisco. If you don't agree with my guesses or wish to propose your own, send an E-mail for our Letters & Opinion page.

Will our false spring burst out at the beginning of February as usual, or will El Nino spoil that as well? I can't take the chance. I've decided to go to Phoenix in late February with all the snowbirds and play in the Arizona Open, just to guarantee my early place in the sun.

Here's wishing you good luck, good play, fair skies, and a happy 1998.

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