Everybody who knows me knows I really love the American version of croquet, despite and maybe even because of its imperfections and oddities. I do acknowledge, however, that if you're from the planet Mars--or for that matter, from Australia--the American obsession with time, as seen in an American Rules croquet game, looks very weird when you first encounter it.
At a certain point the game-time keeper shouted loudly, to make sure the players would hear, "ONE MINUTE REMAINING," and after a beat or two came the call from the shot-clock time keeper, "FIFTEEN SECONDS!" and it was just too thoroughly American a spectacle for Tony to handle with equanimity. He burst out laughing and suffered a long spasm of giggles at courtside, politely trying not to attract attention.
It made an impression on me, too--because I saw, if only for an instant, our strange American croquet culture through Tony's eyes. It's easy to understand why foreign players who witness it for the first time see it as absurd.
My theory about why this absurdity persists is similar to the arguments my ancestors used to perpetuate slavery in the American South long after the rest of the civilized world had given it up: We were accustomed to it, and so were our slaves, many of whom declared that the condition was good for them and good for everyone.
Americans have eliminated legal slavery for picking cotton, but we croquet players are too often slaves to the clock, measuring all the units of time in a croquet game, I think, because of our history: Less than 40 years ago, in the beginning of organized croquet in America, there were very few purpose-built croquet courts, so the time allocated to the courts available for events had to be closely managed. One result was that short, timed games became the norm. That "norm," in my view, has persisted long past any necessity for it in most major American Rules tournaments. It persists largely as "tradition."
It's relevant to note, at the same time, that today at the top level in American rules, the winner of Championship Singles almost always pegs out. In some tournaments, the timing of the finals is not specified in the event guide; in others, a best-of-three format is scheduled, and all the games go to the peg. (My suspicion is that the players in these top-level games--all of whom compete seriously in Association Croquet as well--would be embarrassed to be suspected of "playing the clock" in the American game in front of the gathered spectators.)
A successful experiment has not led to changes
As tournament director, in the last two years of the San Francisco Open, perhaps inspired by the Tony Hall spectacle, we successfully experimented with "timeless" games to the peg in the Championship flight. We found that most games ended well before the 120 minutes we scheduled for each game slot, including double-banked singles games.
The "cost" of scheduling games off the gamelock was the surrender of one of our previous six game periods a day: We had scheduled 90-minute timed games in all flights, within 1:45 game periods, and one 30-minute break for lunch, beginning at 8:30. With the timeless schedule, we started our five two-hour game periods at 8:00 AM, with the final period of the day scheduled for 4:00 PM, allowing up to 90 minutes extra for running overtime, until 7:30. And we envisioned the possibility of completing "pegged down" games at the end of the day, if that should be necessary. (As it turned out, it wasn't.)
Naturally, we encouraged players to start early whenever possible, and we encouraged "expeditious play." so in both years, we ended early in the Championship Flight, with some games ending in less than an hour.
We had demonstrated that games played to the peg with no time limits are practical and workable in the top flight--especially at larger venues with more court capacity and scheduling flexibility.
Since then, I have successfully conducted time experiments with the less expert levels of play at the National Croquet Center with "Wharrad turns"-- multiple rotations after game time expires. This less-than-ideal solution nevertheless enables players to put their attention on the game rather than on the clock in the final rotations. (One complete rotation of four balls beginning with the ball in play when gametime is called is already mandated by the American rules.) The simple expedient of one extra rotation is a practical way of addressing much of the anxiety of BOTH players about "wasting clock time" as a strategy--both the fact and the appearance.
Venues like the National Croquet Center in Florida or Mission Hills in California, with an abundance of courts to handle the occasional over-time situation, make both these options--games to the peg and/or extra turns-- really practical.
Longtime American croquet pro Bob Kroeger observes that there actually is no shot clock kept in most tournaments these days, and therefore no actual way to police time-wasters. But, he comments," most players know if they've gone longer then 45 seconds, and having no shot clock seems to give them license to break the time-limit rule. Another flawed concept (at least in the northeastern US) is that shot times in last turns are unlimited."
Kroeger's observations seem to mirror the fears of many Association Croquet players that citing a limit in AC for shot times will be interpreted as entitlement. And that's exactly how many American players view the 45-second rule; many of them insist on principle--and this is at the top level of play--that they are entitled to deliberately go to the limit on that shot-clock time as a way to hang onto a lead in the game.
Bob Kroeger wrote to me, " I think it's unacceptable to have in the beginning of the rule book a statement that says, "The striker must plan and play shots throughout a game with reasonable dispatch," while the actual rule says, 'In a time limit game the striker shall have a maximum of 45 seconds to strike the striker ball following the completion of the previous shot.' In my opinion, tournament croquet is a farce if you 'guilt' a player into playing fast when there is a near certainly that if you time manage within your 45 seconds you will win."
Kroeger depises this self-contradiction of the American rules. "The murky phrase 'reasonable dispatch' shouldn't be anywhere in the rules section, if it's talking about etiquette rather than 'laws' applying to the rules of play. Where would you find a qualified human being willing to watch each game as a non-biased observer and responsible for ruling on 'reasonable dispatch.'? Any player, including a top-ranked one, is entitled to follow the letter of the rules at any point in a timed game, and do what he needs to do within the rules to win. Why would anyone who wants to win do anything else? It should not be considered a violation of either rules or etiquette."
As for Association Croquet, "To me it's ridiculous not to have two last turns per side in timed AC games," Kroeger said. "This would help to make stalling useless. One of the reasons I've done reasonably well at the Selection Eights--along with solid breaks and good tactics--is that there are no time limits."
Kroeger favors the extra complete rotation at the end of American rules games as well. It isn't in the rule book, but it isn't prohibited either. Presumably, tournament directors are allowed to manage game and match times in their events as they see fit.
"But it's a different game, without time!"
That's what the critics say, and they are right! An almost imperceptible but very clear result is......faster games! Nobody has any reason at all to delay on any stroke, or in American Rules, to decline to run one-back. All the attention is paid to getting to the finishing peg first--the destination designed into the game to let you know who has won and who has lost.
Moreover, many players--especially at the top level--in their "practice" games outside a tournament format, routinely play relaxed "causal" games to the peg. Why should the pace and strategy of tournament games be any different?
And don't forget the Short Game
So why is the Short Game such a failure, in both Association and American rules? I suspect the thoughts and emotions driving its unpopularity are similar to those behind the reluctance of the 85-handicap golfer to play on a par-3 course, or the 10-handicap croquet players to compete in Golf Croquet on a half-court.
The rules in AC are less murky and confused with regard to "shoulds" and "should nots" which are linguistically beyond the purview of referrees and TDs--although Bob Kroger, for one--who plays and directs events in both formats--says he always comments on the issue of "time" at the start of his events as a personal opinion--urging expedition in play and counseling again using the 45-second shot clock limit as an entitlement--that unfortunately carries no weight with the players, given the ambiguity of the American rulebook on those points. And as a back-up, he likes to provide at least one extra rotation after game time in both formats.
The point is: croquet games played to the peg with no time limit are workable in the top flight at larger venues with more court capacity and scheduling flexibility; and games with multiple rotations after time in the lower flights address the same issue, helping players to put their attention on the game rather than on the clock.
Time in Association Croquet
Association Croquet at top level is usually intended to be played to the peg, even when the best-of-three or even a best-of-five format is employed for the finals and sometimes the semi-finals as well. In reality, they still have time limits set long enough for the games and matches to (probably) finish, but short enough (hopefully) for the event not to overrun to the following Monday.
For the few spectators with the time and patience to stick it out, the main thing to witness in these marathon match exertions--in addition to the grooms and lifts--is the break-downs. The more there are, the more likely the player most proficient in all the elements of the game will win the contest.
But because of the fear of an "unfair" result when the lesser player is "lucky" on too-easy courts with too-easy hoops, much attention these days is being focused on changing from best-of-three formats to best-of-fives--which extends the "maximum" time of a best-of-five match to 10 1/2 hours. So it's quite possible that in addition to driving away all the spectators, an "untimed" best-of-five match might actually include one or more games that don't go to the peg!
The formula most used for timing best-of-three matches is, in the order of the three games, a minimum of 4, 7 and 9 hours cumulatively. For best-of-five matches, the numbers proposed are a minimum of 3, 5˝, 7˝, 9 and 10˝ hours cumulatively.
James Hawkins of Liverpool points out that time limit games are not in the main body of the laws of croquet, but are mentioned in an appendix on tournament regulations, as a convenience for tournament managers wanting to achieve a manageable schedule. But, "I'd be uncomfortable about getting a reliable result if the limit was cut shorter than two and a half hours."
And Hawkins see many advantages of having no time limit: "There would be no disputes about time wasting. Players would be more relaxed about double-bankers dithering around their hoop for twenty minutes. And, curiously, untimed games don't seem to last much longer. There may be a change in mindset, by which slow players actually knuckle down and play for a peg-out finish rather than scraping a ball-in-each-corner one-hoop-advantage win."
French explains English time
Martin French, former Secretary-General of the World Croquet Federation, has confronted "time" issues often over many years, as both a tournament director and referee. He notes that the AC laws require "expedition in play" without defining precisely what that means in seconds and minutes. But, "The tournament referee has the power to put a ref in charge and take sanctions against any individual player. The tournament director can put a time limit on an individual game if it is dragging on, but not I think to penalise a player for slow play."
"I then took a chair by the side of the lawn and I found that if a player was unnecessarily slow, simply getting slowly to my feet was enough to get the player to get on with it--so I haven’t actually ever had to impose a penalty!" The referee has genuine power in such a situation to affected play just by his courtside demeanor.
French notes, "The tournament referee has the power to put a ref in charge and take sanctions against any individual player. The tournament director can put a time limit on an individual game if it is dragging on, but not I think to penalise a player for slow play."
According to French, "The tide seems to be turning against time limits in Golf Croquet now. Several events which had time limits a few years ago now either have none or they have been extended so they very rarely come into play--a definite improvement. I would like to see no time limits in Golf Croquet.
"The WCF does set down Golf Croquet time limits for its own events, but has some words around them like "normally we'd expect these events not to be subject to time limits, but if the manager decides they are necessary, they mustn't be any shorter than these...."
Colin and the late Christine Irwin used to spend winters in Venice, Florida playing mostly American rules and playing the other six months in England, all Association Croquet. Chris told me that virtually all the tournaments in the UK are time-limited, except the big championships such as the Opens, Mens, Womens, and President's Cup. She drew a distinction between slow play and choosing not to run 1-back in American rules: "I see choosing not to run one-back as a valid defensive tactic that a player may adopt at will. I have no issue with my opponents using it when I have deadness, and I sometime use it too. I find that the general ethos and attitude of the American club where the players acquire their habits is a factor in whether players are slow and run the clock or not."
Time in Australia can be measured six different ways
The problem is, though, that "most competitions are controlled by one of the six state assocaitions, and they have the power to adopt their own rules. I am familiar only with Croquet New South Wales, and all games controlled by this body are time limited, and have been since I became a referee in the late 1980s.
"However, I have a handbook dated 1954 of the N.S.W. Croquet Association (as it then was) which contains the laws of the game and lots of regulations and rules but no mention of clocks." As to extra turns at the end, "I have never heard the name Wharrad used in Australia, and I am not sure I know what it means."
Nattering on the Nottingham
The issue of "time" comes up regularly on the Nottingham Board, and as with most such conversations, usually come to something like the same conclusions each time. Chris Clarke, who minces neither words nor opinions, commented on the board, "Having played in the last Golf Croquet Worlds, I really struggled to find the motivation to focus during some of my later block matches (that's 9 best of 3's in 5 days). We then spent Day 6 reducing the successful 32 qualifiers down to 8. Five days of almost irrelevance followed by one day of carnage. Completely bonkers."
The top-level players, quite naturally, would like to see the top players emerge quickly from the blocks--even though organizers recognize that top-level competitions are not only about the winners, but also about the players who are pleased and proud just to be able to compete, and very intent on just getting out of the blocks and qualified for the match-play knock-out.
The now-conventional blocks of eight, for example, with the top four qualifying from the blocks (whether they're single games or best-of-three matches) might instead be blocks of four, with the top two qualifying.
Or even blocks of eight might have only the top two qualify, which would give more playing time to the aspiring champions not likely to make it to the final knockout stages.
But Martin French points out that running a major event with the objective only of making sure that the best player wins might drive most competitors away from the event entirely, devaluing it for both winners and losers as well as for the sponsoring organizations.
And all of this conversation takes place within the assumption that no really workable time formula for best-of-fives is likely ever to be found.
Is there any way out of this conundrum? Yes, there is! And it's both practical as well as totally revolutionary! Read on.
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