It's a time for introspection, making resolutions, recalling the best of the passing year and looking forward to the next. It's a time for putting together top-ten lists. Who are croquet's top ten? That's easy, you don't even have to look inside your head - you just go online and tap into Chris Williams' latest world ranking list.
So let's celebrate croquet's top ten, let's talk about what's so great about them, individually and in the aggregate. Let's see who they are and where they're from. Let's make the exercise just as significant as we possibly can, shall we? Let us squint hard and discern the overarching contextual truths invisible to the unsophisticated eye.
But wait! The frame doesn't quite fit yet. Ten won't do. Twelve makes a better story. So twelve it is. This story is about croquet's top twelve.
Britain's croquet empire is eroding at the top
For the last decade, Great Britain has been able to claim dominance in the sport as the engine and soul of a worldwide croquet commonwealth. The British have steadfastly held the MacRobertson Shield and the WCF World Championship and have usually had half a dozen players in the top 12 of the rankings.
The latest set of World Rankings, however (December 12, 2001) show only three Brits in the top 12, and the Kiwis with six - half the total. Sitting atop the list is the best player in the world - and his name isn't Fulford.
World #1 Reg Bamford, though long resident in England, is most emphatically South African. "I always was South African," says he, "and always will be. The longer I spend outside the country, the more patriotic I become, especially living in a country like England!"
Jerry Stark, captain of many a US International team, has tried like Clarke to take the starch out of my significating proposition, with comments so conservative and reasonable and boring they could be coming from a three-piece suit. "I would not place much significance on the December ranking. My guess would be that it is the croquet season in New Zealand and they are getting a lot of top level play with each other, thus moving their grades and indexes up, thus rising in the list, while the Brits sit home in the cold and rain. I would not say that Great Britain's reign is near ending."
Hot air down there in Australasia
I have had to go to New Zealand to get any really thoughtful and extended comment on this undeniably significant shift in the rankings. It comes from Rodger Lane, a not-so-bad player and croquet statistician par excellance who is also editor of the Croquet New Zealand Website. (See Rodger's mind-boggling stats on the 2000 MacRobertson Shield that New Zealand very nearly snatched away from Britain, on the New Zealand Events Board of CroquetWorld.com.)
Rodger lectured at length on "the conundrum posed by the apparent proposition that Kiwi players are at last beginning to outstrip those from England. Of course there are three reasons for this, the first two of which must be dismissed out of hand.
"The first proposition - put forward by bean counters and their ilk - is that it all depends where one places the cutoff on the latest world rankings. Clearly at rank 12 the figures you [Alman] correctly quoted are evident. But the bean counters would say that at rank 10 there are 4 NZers and 3 English; at rank 20 the ratio becomes 7:7; and at rank 30 it is 8:11 in favour of English players. These people would argue that this is just a statistical anomaly. I am confident that you will agree with me that this is a totally fallacious argument and should not be tolerated by right-thinking croquet players.
"The second reason which might be given is that when ranking competitions take place, the ranks on the list change [with the seasons]. When games are in the Northern Hemisphere, those from the North gain advantage. When games are played in Australasia, players in those countries can be expected to advance in rank. Cretins of this persuasion would have us believe that rankings are date-dependent. Clearly those who favour this proposition are unbalanced. What merit is there (for example) in pointing to the recent Trans-Tasman tests between Australia and New Zealand and noting how successful players such as Brian Wislang and Graham Beale were? 'None whatsoever' I hear you reply, to my considerable relief. Like the first, this argument is ridiculous and would only be entertained by those who lack a realistic appreciation of all things croquet."
[Editor's note: Mr. Lane is not intending to refer to any one particular person quoted in this article as a "Cretin." The comments of each these correspondents have not been reviewed by the others.]
Lane continues, "The real reason behind the statistics is a purely scientific and thus completely persuasive one. For those who lack scientific training, perhaps I can put it as a series of facts. (1) - following the laws of thermodynamics, hot air rises over cold air because the average density of warm air decreases when warmth causes the distance between molecules to increase. (2) - thus warmer air will be on top, cold air on the bottom. (3) - The world is round, spins, and is affected by both warm and cold air masses. (4) - Due to the tilted axis of the earth, it is affected differentially by the angle to the sun, thus causing warm and cold seasons which alternate in northern and southern latitudes such than when it is cold in the north, it is warm in the south (and vice versa). (5) - New Zealand and England are diametrically opposed to each other - being literally on opposite sides of Earth - England in the north and New Zealand in the south. (6) During the southern summer the tilt of the earth and laws of thermodynamics mean that New Zealand will be on top of the world and, as a corollary, all traditional maps must be read upside down.
"Putting these facts together, what do we have? Clearly at this time of the year, New Zealand is on top. The rankings...quoted merely reflect this grand scheme of things. They are a mirror, a reflection of the greater reality. We only await recognition of our place in the world (croquet or otherwise) by our friends to the North."
Mr. Lane's stunning summation, embracing physics, geography, and climatology in one cosmic tour de force, leaves us breathless with admiration. His implied conclusion is humane and eminently fair: he allows Britain to be on top from June through October; New Zealand can be on top from November through May. Whether the same cosmology applies to the U.S. and Australia is not made clear. Now that the US has finally defeated Australia in the MacRob, the Yanks are unlikely to relinquish third place in the middle of winter. Perhaps they can come to Florida to maintain their rankings.
New Zealand's achievement is all the more impressive given its recent loss of so many top players. According to Lane, "Steve Jones, Ian Dumerge, and Peter Landrebe have become resident in Australia; players like Shane Davis seem to be peripatetic and now, particularly cruelly for those of us in Canterbury, Graham Beale is going to Papua, New Guinea for a while. Woe is us! I am beginning to suspect a conspiracy here. Is there a devilish plot afoot to make sure that humble players like yours truly get advanced in the ranks? I certainly hope not - I know my place."
The Kiwis are famously polite and modest. Lane is no exception. Reading between the lines, it is absolutely clear to me that Lane believes New Zealand deserves dominance - not just in the winter, but all year long. Total dominance. Forever. Beating Australia is nice, but that's too easy, it's not enough.
An anonymous player comments, "A ranking is dependent on two things: how one is playing, and whom one is playing. I think it is very clear that there are separate pools of players in the list. Kiwis play Kiwis, Aussies play Aussies, Brits play Brits, etc. Once a lot of points get into one of those pools, they tend to stay there for quite a while, as there is not enough play between the pools. I think one of the best ways the American team could improve its ranking is to develop a US vs. NZ match.
If Americans are under-ranking in the American pool, how can American rankings achieve par? If an American goes over to England and has a good tournament, he or she can pick up some points - only to be dispersed in American tournaments. The writer cites an instance of one American player winning a major American tournament and as a result losing ten places on the world ranking list because of a defeat in a single game. The same writer says, "The Brits are going down, but they probably haven't gone down yet. Their players are getting older without getting better, they have few good young players, and everyone else is getting better."
The same writer says, "The Brits are going down, but they probably haven't gone down yet. Their players are getting older without getting better, they have few good young players, and everyone else is getting better."
And the winner is...
There's no doubting that Reg Bamford at #1 in the rankings is the king of the sport today. He appears to be virtually unbeatable in a match. If he maintains form, he will continue to win everything. But an anonymous Brit says, "I doubt he will be able to keep it up for a long time. He may lose interest, or develop a "winner's curse" - he could become overconfident, and then if he fails, will lose his confidence. That happens frequently at top level."
Top-player opinion seems equally united with regard to current #2, Robert Fulford. His steadiness is praised, along with his complete mastery of all the "thinking" elements of the game. "He's the same old reliable 'Bunny'," one player emailed me. "If he loses more, its probably because other players are getting better." A British croquet bigwig told me, "I still regard Rob Fulford as the most imaginative player but he is now studying for his accountancy finals and that is bound to take its toll."
At #3, Maugham is very good - but he's more likely than the two above him to suffer a slump and play badly from time to time. Being in love has reportedly mellowed "The Beast" somewhat. The precise effects of this romance have not yet been measured on the court.
At #4, young Toby Garrison may be a bit over-ranked, according to one anonymous American.
It should come as no surprise to hear that Kiwi Bob Jackson, #5, has passed his peak somewhere way back there in his sixties. But they have been saying that for some time, and he is still tough as nails in competition. His winning percentage is just about the highest on the ranking list, but most of his games are against people who can't play at his level. He plays mostly Kiwis. If one accepts the proposition that the New Zealand pool is generally over-ranked, it means that Bob Jackson gets inflated points when he beats a fellow Kiwi. By this reasoning, then, Jackson himself is over-ranked.
Clarke, at #6, has had to pay a lot of attention to earning a living. His game has held up surprisingly well. He may have surprised himself more than anyone in achieving the Somoma-Cutrer final against Mulliner. His percentage of hit-ins is generally low, so he has to rely on high peeling percentages. Latest word has it that Clarke is no longer working and now presumably has time to devote to maintaining his ranking. He will continue to be a strong asset to any British team, but he's not likely to rise to the top unless he learns to hit a 20-yarder.
Mark McInerney, at #7 the top Irishman, has steadied down in the last couple of years and deserves his place in the top ten. On his best form, he is very much deserving of a place in the top ten. His style is fearlessly aggressive, but when he's a little off, he can hurt himself. No matter, he's very young, with lots of time to grow and mature. He could conceivably lead Ireland to the top of the world rankings within a couple of years with some help from his brother Ronan, currently #24.
Irishman Simon Williams, at #9, goes through phases. He's looking good lately, and he told me in October when the Irish team played in Palm Beach at the National Croquet Center that he's taking his croquet very seriously these days. He's been around a long time, he's tough, he's likable, and he's taciturn. He declined to be interviewed for publication. Perhaps he doesn't like my interview style.
The next three places all belong to Kiwi's, and skeptics will say that they achieved their ranking by playing against other over-ranked Kiwi's. They are #10 Graham Beale; #11 John Prince; and #12 Brian Wisland.
I'm so grateful I didn't have to make up my top-twelve list. I am impressed by Chris Williams' world ranking system, regional pools and seasonal hotspots notwithstanding. I don't wholly understand it, but I accept it as statistical gospel even though I have this nagging feeling that there should be at least one American up there: Fournier, Taves, Stark, or Wynand Louw (lately of South Africa but now at home in the Carolinas).
But that's just wishful thinking, pointless musing. It doesn't surprise me that six of the twelve places on Chris' list belong to New Zealand. Has everyone forgotten that the Kiwis very nearly grabbed the MacRob away from Britain in Christchurch last year? I say the writing is on the wall, and it's not American graffiti or Southern Hemisphere hot air. It comes straight from Chris Williams' statistical gospel, and I believe it. Truly. I do.
But the new #1 deserves the last word here. Reg Bamford, speaking like a true citizen of the world, says, "Its a good thing that there's now a mix of nationalities at the top of the rankings. This indicates top play in two or three countries, not just one. England has had a very competitive season over the last decade, but the dominance of the 'Brat Pack' is fading. The older one gets, the less obsessive one becomes about winning and perfecting one's game.
"The Poms aren't invincible," Bamford asserts. "Once the Kiwis, the Aussies and the Yanks realise this, the aura around the British team starts dissappearing. This is what's happening."
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