Picking the winners at MacRob 2000
John Prince from Canterbury has been recalled to the six-man New Zealand Croquet team after a ten-year absence to play in croquet's premier event, the MacRobertson Shield, a quadrangular test match series against Great Britain, Australia and the United States. Auckland's Bob Jackson has also been recalled, after having been dropped from the last MacRobertson team in 1996.
Joining the two veterans are three youngsters, all under 25: Richard Baker (Bay of Plenty), Shane Davis and Toby Garrison (both Wellington). The sixth and Wellington's third member of the team is myself, making my fourth appearance in the MacRobertson. I have also accepted the considerable honour of the Captaincy. The selectors must have thought I did a good job in the recent whitewash of Australia in the Trans Tasman Test.
John Prince, one of New Zealand's greatest players, started his Croquet as a schoolboy in Wellington when he would walk down to Naenae Croquet Club's perfect lawn to practice. I know its perfect because I used to be a member there myself. He made a meteoric rise to fame (if not fortune) by being included in the 1963 MacRobertson team at the age of 16 years. He made his record seventh MacRobertson appearance in 1990 and in between, won seven New Zealand Open Championships as well as many other titles. He was probably at his best in the late 60's and early 1970's when he engaged Nigel Aspinall in some titanic struggles on the international circuit.
John's strength is his ability to keep calm under pressure, his precise touch play (developed surely from the magnificent lawn at Naenae) and his Croquet brain, constantly on the lookout for a different approach or a new way of doing things. He retired from MacRobertson involvement in 1993 but his form has been so impressive in recent years that his recall was inevitable.
Bob Jackson has done just about everything in Croquet and has particularly stamped his mark on the New Zealand Open, the final of which he has contested no fewer than 22 times in 25 years, winning it for the 13th time this year to eclipse Arthur Ross' long-standing record. A peeling fiend, he has completed no less than 46 sextuple peels in tournament play including 3 octuples (2 of them in consecutive games). Not known for his precise play, Jackson is nonetheless the world's most ruthless match player. By 1979 he had become by general acclaim the best croquet player in the world and today has lost little of his skill. This will be his sixth MacRobertson. In a rare quote, Jackson said of himself and Prince: "Don't call us veterans or old timers: call us experienced players!".
Richard Baker, despite his youth, has already excelled in two previous series since making his debut in 1993 at the age of 17.
Shane Davis and Toby Garrison will be making their MacRobertson debuts. Davis was third in the WCF World Championship at Bunbury and runner-up in this year's New Zealand Open. Garrison followed up his New Zealand Open Doubles success with third place at Sonoma in 1998.
New Zealand's number 1 player, Aaron Westerby, was unavailable for selection as he is currently studying at Cambridge University in England. The squad is completed by non-travelling reserves Brian Wislang (Nelson), and Graham Beale (Canterbury), both previous MacRobertson players. Beale will also manage the team.
I am thrilled with the team selection. This is a strong team and a great blend of youth and experience. Most of the team has been playing together for several years and the team spirit that has evolved will be vital in negating the challenge of the powerful British team. With Graham Beale at the helm, we will be a difficult team to beat.
New Zealand will start second favourites behind Great Britain, who have won the series three times since New Zealand's last victory in 1986. New Zealand had a great chance to win in 1996 in England when they took a 5-2 lead in the deciding Test. On that occasion, Great Britain struck back magnificently.
New Zealand will have a much improved team this time round, four members of the team played in 1990 when Great Britain took the Shield from them in Christchurch. This was another occasion when New Zealand threw away a handy lead, eventually losing 9-12. Paradoxically, that team found it difficult playing at home, unable to divorce their day to day worries and duties from their croquet. The four surviving members will have learned from this experience and will be determined to ensure a better result this time round.
One of the key attributes that the New Zealand team has developed lately is their ability never to give up, and to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. This was startlingly evident in the 1995 Trans Tasman Test when New Zealand had to win all four singles matches on the final day (all by 2-0) to take the series. They did.
Clearly, the contest will be close. Robert Fulford has never lost a MacRobertson match and Clarke, Maugham and Mulliner (if he travels - the British selelections are to be announced in mid September) are very much amongst the world's top players. Their choice of players #5 and #6 is not so clear cut, but in the past they have always provided extreme competition in these vitally important positions.
Equally clearly, the challenge from USA will be strong and very significant. If they can field a full strength team they may exceed their wildest dreams. Australia have the potential to do well but are currently in a re-building period.
I don't intend to speculate on the make-up of the remaining teams but I guess I'd better make a prediction on the results (if I must).
NZ 13 US 8 GB 18 AU 3 NZ 14 AU 7 GB 16 US 5 NZ 12 GB 9 AU 11 US 10
In September, Shane Davis and Graham Beale (as Manager) withdrew from the New Zealand MacRobertson team. Shane has been offered a "chance of a lifetime" world cruise with American player L.S.Jackson. Any rumours as to sabotage are probably completely true! His replacement will be Brian Wislang. Always a difficult man to beat, Brian brings a wealth of experience to the team, having played top level croquet for more than 20 years. He was a valuable member of the 1996 Shield team. Graham, who has recently changed track in his career, remains in the team as a reserve. At the time of writing, neither the new Manager nor the replacement reserve have been named.
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