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How Was It For You?

by John Solomon
Posted January 28, 1998

As president of the English Croquet Association, John Solomon delivered the inaugural "Solomon Lecture" at Bristol on November 2, 1997, at a meeting of the South West Federation. By permission of THE CROQUET GAZETTE, which features the now-famous speech in the January/February 1998 issue, we reproduce it here in full as our final observance of the Centennial Year of the English Croquet Association - the organization which brought the sport into being, which has nurtured its development and expansion to other countries, and which numbers among its members the best croquet players in the world. John Solomon has played competitively at the top level for half a century - longer than anyone else in the history of the sport.
John and Barbara Solomon (left) on holiday in France in September, 1997, with Ted Strong; photo by Jeanne Strong.

I am very gratified that there are so many croquet lovers here today, at least I presume that you are all croquetphiles. It is of course possible that one or two might have wandered in under the mistaken impression that the talk was going to be on what it was like to have 300 wives and 700 concubines, or some other quite different subject.

I say that because misunderstandings can occur - though perhaps are more likely when one is comparatively young. A few weeks ago I heard the comedian Billy Connolly explain that as a young boy he was quite under the impression that there was a bear called "Gladly". One of my sisters had a similar instance. Singing carols round the piano with the family, aged about 8 or 9, she was heard to sing in 'Onward Christian Soldiers' "Christ the royal Master, leans against the phone"!

But to return to Billy Connolly, he, at a similar age, and in a similar context, heard his parents sing "Gladly the cross I'd bear" and was for quite a time under the impression that there was a bear called 'Gladly', and one who was cross-eyed, to boot.

It is, of course, a great honour for me to have been asked to give this lecture, and to have it named after me. Perhaps the title 'Croquet: How was it for you?' is a little flippant. I didn't really want a title at all but was asked to provide one at rather short notice and discarded the rather dull 'The next 100', 'The second 50 years' , 'The last 50 years', 'The Queen of Games' (not very original), 'A retrospect', 'My life and times' and one or two others as being awfully dull. So do not read too much into the title that has been published.

I am not so innocent as to pretend that I am unaware of the reason why I should have been chosen, nor so modest as to deny that I did have a considerable period of success in competitive tournaments over a period of 25 years - what is I believe a unique record and one which may never be equaled, consisting of 48 National and International titles between 1951 and 1974. There is also the fact that I have the honour to be the President of the Croquet Association. I recall the story of the schoolboy who was asked to define the difference between a king and a President. "Well,' he said, "a king is always the son of his father, but a President is not necessarily so!".

As we all know, this year marks the Centenary of the Association, and a number of events have taken place to mark this special year. Whilst there are a considerable number of Associates who are older than I am - much older than I am, I believe there is no-one in this country today who can claim to have been playing competitively as long as I have. Freddie Stone played from, I think, 1912 until1956, a total of 44 years. However, I played in my first tournament in September 1947. and this year therefore marks my 50th anniversary of tournament play. When I first joined the CA in 1948 my impression would have been, had I thought about it at all, that the CA had been going for a long time, certainly back to the 19th century. At my age of16, that would have seemed a lifetime ago, and yet I now find that I have been a member for half the lifetime of the Association, something I would never have contemplated 50 years ago

I am not going to talk very much about myself, except in so far as I was, in one way or another, involved with other people; but to put something on the record which is not I think generally known, I will say a word or two about how I began.

The Origin of the Solomon Grip

The usual question I am asked is, "When did you start to play croquet?" - to which I reply, "When I was 15". Whilst this is true in one sense, the real answer comes if, as I sometimes am, I am asked, "How did the Solomon grip come about?" We had a grass tennis court at home which I can only remember being laid out as a croquet lawn, on which we played golf croquet, the only kind we knew. From the age of 5, possibly earlier, I used to amuse myself hitting a ball around. When you are no more than 3 feet tall and you are confronted with a mallet that is as tall as you are, there is really only one way to hold it. Starting at that age, it soon became totally natural for me to swing without even thinking about it.

Jumping now to what happened when I was 15, my mother was introduced to Association croquet at Roehampton, and she taught me a little at home. In the school holidays of 1947 I went along to Roehampton a few times to watch my mother playing in a small tournament. If one of the lawns became free I would lay out the balls and try to play a break. In September - the week before returning to school - there was a small tournament, the Turketine Tray, which I entered, was given a handicap of15, and in I think 4 rounds had won it and was brought down to a 10 handicap.

"The Only Lesson I Ever Had in My Life"

The following year, 1948, in the Easter holidays, I used to cycle to Roehampton from our home near Putney Heath two or three mornings each week and practise, laying out four-ball breaks and seeing how many bisques I took to get round - you all know the sort of thing. There were three or four regulars there - I remember R.H .Park, Capt. Backhaus, Edward Carlisle, (no relation of Hugh and Veronica); and one day Mr. Carlisle said to me, "Come on the court, Solomon" (it was all very formal in those days. even to young 16-year-olds) "and I'll teach you how to play a four-ball break".

Well, I bridled at this - I knew how to play a four-ball-break, I'd already won a tournament hadn't I? - but I was a well brought up lad and so I duly followed him as he laid out a perfect four-ball break. I made the first hoop and was about to roquet the pilot ball when he asked me what I was going to do. I said I was going to roquet it and send it to the third hoop, going to the pivot near the stick. "Fine" he said, and as I was about to roquet it he asked, "Where are you going to roquet it to?" "I'm just going to roquet it," I said.

"Well, consider that if you send it to here, you'll be wired by the peg, and here you'll be wired by the pivot ball, so make sure you avoid those two spots." Yes, good thinking, I mused.

Having roqueted the pivot, I was again asked my intentions. I said I was going to take off to the pioneer at the second hoop. "Where precisely?" he asked. I said, "Well, just go to the hoop", to which he replied, "The pioneer is a yard to the left of the hoop, so if you go to the hoop you'll be hitting it further away. Make sure you go to the left of the pioneer and then you'll be able to hit it up in front of the hoop."

And so it went on, my resentment vanished, and I lapped up every word of wisdom that he expounded. I think at the sixth hoop he said, "That will do - you've got the idea," and I was eternally grateful for the only lesson I ever had in my life.

Triumph at Hurlingham

In the summer holidays I played in the Hurlingham tournament, which was a 10-day one running to the Wednesday of the following week, and won the Longworth Cup, a class level event for 6 and over playing off10. This was reported in the Evening Standard with a picture of my opponent Miss Elphinstone-Stone and me under the caption "16 Beats 83 at Croquet". I also won the big handicap from an entry of 84, but my handicap was reduced to 7 before the first round.

In the Mens Handicap doubles I partnered Dr. Oliver from Roehampton, a wily old boy with a handicap of 0.5 who noticed on the board that no handicap was written beside our names. Knowing I had been brought down to 7 in the singles he said, "Come on, Solomon, we're going to play" and I played off 10 and continued at that handicap for the rest of the event, which we won.

Playing the Game with Pre-War Legends

I ended the week with a handicap of 4. Perhaps what is of most interest in all this is that, having played in tournaments since 1947, I am probably one of the few people to have played against or with people who played before the war, in the 30s or even 20s. Indeed a person I knew very well for many years and whom I played on several occasions actually won the Ladies Championship in 1899, almost 100 years ago. She was then Miss Lilias Gower and I think she was about 18 at that time and she won it 3 years in a row. I knew her as Mrs. Beaton and my partner Pat Cotter christened her (privately to me) "the brown bomber" or "the blue bomber", for she appeared to have only two dresses, both identical in design, one brown and the other blue. She was very easy to get on with and was still a useful player - her handicap was -0.5 - in 1950.

Almost invariably her first remark on meeting her at the beginning of a new season (for me it was as late as May for the Inter-Counties) was, "I'll tell you who's playing well this year - Mr. Hodges." She had her favourites, and Charles Hodges figured prominently on her list.

It was during my first tournament at Roehampton, the Turketine Tray, that I first met Humphrey Hicks. The President's Cup was being played at the same time on lawns 1 to 4, while we were on 5 to 7. They were all in one long line in those days and for their big tournament they had two more up on the bank where the putting green now is. I was playing on lawn 7 when Humphrey, who had finished his game, came striding down the bank at the north end and sat on the bench at the end of the court. After a while I finished a turn at that end of the court - I probably stuck in the second hoop - and went to sit down on the same bench. I plucked up courage and said, "You're making me very nervous", to which he replied, "Oh, don't worry, I'm making your opponent much more nervous". I will have more to say about Hicks later on.

Incidentally, in looking through old Gazettes to refresh my memory, I noticed that there was a whole column advertisement - that's a half page - for the President's Cup; strange when you consider nobody can enter for it.

In those days and for the next two or three years, I met many players who had played before the war. Though most of you know of Handel Elvey, only a few will have known him. His full name was George Frederick Handel Elvey, and he had been the Vicar of Upper Dicker, just north of Eastbourne. He was a fine player, though perhaps past his best when I knew him, and a good craftsman, making mallets of many kinds. It was very strange that as the weather got warmer he put on an overcoat and Pat Cotter reported to me that on one occasion he had been seen wearing three overcoats, but I can't vouch for the veracity of that

A Most Unusual Game with Willie Longman at Southwick

Many of you will have known Norah Elvey, who was also a fine player of around scratch - minus 2, I think, at her best. Kay Longman was a fine minus player and I think in those days the only lady to play centre stance. She didn't wear slacks, ladies didn't in those days, but divided skirts. Her husband Willie Longman of the publishing family - a Presidents Cup player - was also still playing well.

In 1951 I had to give him 1.5 bisques in the Southwick tournament and had reached the peg and the 6th when Willie ran the rover but was unable to peg his partner out for some reason but pegged out my peg ball and himself of course. I was for the 6th and he for the peg. I got position for the 6th, he rolled up to the peg, I ran the hoop and was able to hit him and take position for 1-back. He rolled up to the peg, I made 1-back and hit him, and so on, never getting a break but always roqueting him, except once when I missed him after 3-back on what should have been one of the easiest roquets. Amazingly, he missed the peg from one yard and I then 'knew' I was going to win, and so I did. A very unusual game.

Mrs Neville Oddie was a minus player who wasted no time - she just walked up and hit the ball, and very effectively, too. Often it looked as though her break was going to disappear altogether and that she would be bound to break down, but more often than not she managed to keep it going. The only occasion I won the Open Mixed Doubles Championship was with her. Her husband was a well known tournament manager, and another was Ernest Turner, who came from Cheltenham and usually managed the big Hurlingham tournament.

The Fascinating Style of Miss D.D.Steele

D.D. Steele had of course been the supreme player before the war, winning the Beddow Cup four times when it was presented to her and was replaced by the President's Cup. I played her at Southwick in 1949 when I had come down to 1 and she was -4. I think I must have been intimidated by her reputation ,for I lost by 13 and must have made a complete mess of five bisques, unless perhaps I committed the dreadful sin of going to bed with some of them.

She had a fascinating style, standing very upright, her heels together but her feet at right angles, rather like a ballet dancer, and swinging her mallet actually over her right foot.

Duff Mathews was just a name to me, along with C.L.O'Callaghan, and Cyril Corbally. They were the great Irish trio of the early part of this century. Corbally first won the Opens in 1902, winning it five times in all; O'Callaghan won it in 1910 and again twice more; Duff Mathews in 1914 and again three more times. I not only met the Duffer, but actually played against him at Carrickmines when the CA sent a team over to play Ireland in about1956. I remember that he had me beaten, (well, there is always the last shot isn't there?) except that on his second turn to the peg he laid up in the third corner. As I thankfully took the lift he said "Oh, that dratted lift. We don't bother about them in Ireland!"

Some others I will mention briefly. Maurice Reckitt and his brother Geoffrey: both had similar styles but Geoffrey was more elegant. He played long rolls beautifully, holding the mallet fairly high and bouncing the back ball. Maurice was an extremely nervous player with a number of mannerisms.

Hope Rotherham: tallish and very straight, she had probably the most unpure swing anyone has ever seen. It described an arc behind her. She said that one winter she spent a lot of time in front of the mirror developing a straight swing. When she went on the court in the spring she missed everything by a yard!

Freddy Stone has sadly died only recently at the age of 98. He was not tall, and he bent right over the ball keeping his legs straight, with rather a short mallet. He wore one glove I think, because he hit the ball so hard. He was known to break a hoop on more than one occasion. I have seen him approach, say, the first hoop with no pioneer at the second and boost the hoop right down to the north boundary and then hit the return roquet, which he did just for the fun of it. Of course, sometimes he missed. His hard hitting wore him out, for I remember playing him in the President's Cup and when I finished my turn I found him fast asleep in his deckchair.

Solomon's Debut on the International Team as a Student on Leave

I am skipping ahead a little chronologically, for it was in 1950 that I had the opportunity to go to New Zealand with the team for the MacRobertson Trophy. It is perhaps a little interesting as to how I came to be part of that team in 1950/51. In my last quarter at Charterhouse I went for a medical for my National Service and was rather delighted when I was turned down, being graded D3 (or should that be D4?). Anyway, it meant I didn't have to do National Service, and as I had been accepted at Magdalen College, Cambridge for two years later, they agreed to take me a year earlier, but that meant that I had a year free.

My father had heard that the Longmans, who had originally been part of the team, could not now go, and he volunteered my name. You can imagine my extreme pleasure when I received a letter from my father a week before the end of my last quarter which contained nothing but a first class return ticket to New Zealand, which incidentally cost L300, which I remember working out later cost just over 1 penny a mile, including about 5 meals a day and dinner was 7 courses each evening!

One of the tournaments I played in that summer was the big Southwick one where I first met Lord Tollemache. He said to me, "Solomon, I hear you are going to New Zealand. Shake hands". I thought it was a pretty formal way to congratulate me but then he said "Ah, that's good, not too hard, not too soft. A surgeon's grasp. Let me feel your mallet. Oh, much too heavy for those fast lawns out there. I'll bring you a better one tomorrow".

He duly did so, a very lovely Corbally which must have weighed almost a pound more than my own. I politely declined his kind offer. But I have always enjoyed reading his book, the first big one published in 1914, particularly Chapter II, which is headed "How to hit your own ball". He says, "This is of such great importance that I have taken great trouble to go into the minutest detail of exactly how it should be done. It is the only really difficult thing in croquet". How true!

I mentioned Humphrey Hicks a little earlier. I got to know him pretty well because we were both members of the English team which went to New Zealand in 1950. Four of us went by sea from Tilbury - Winifred Kingsford (later Winifred Ashton), Mrs. Ozanne, Hicks, and myself. On the first evening we met for a cocktail before dinner and Winifred said to me, "John, we have been talking. We think it will be silly if you call us Mr. Hicks and Mrs. Kingsford and so on, so I'm Winifred". "And I'm Humphrey" said he.

Mrs. Ozanne remained silent, possibly because her deaf aid was switched off. She was profoundly deaf and carried an ancient apparatus, about the size of a handbag, which she kept switched off unless you signaled to her to turn it on. I gather that most of the passengers on the ship came to the conclusion that I was the son of Humphrey and Winifred, but how Hosannah (as we came to call her between ourselves) fitted in, we never knew.

During that trip to New Zealand, where we spent three months and played croquet on at least 85 of the 90 days there, I improved rapidly. I had left England with a handicap of -1, and on the journey out to New Zealand, through the Panama Canal (a fascinating trip, but this is not a travelogue), I had on occasions thought that I would be the reserve for the Test Matches. Winifred was a -1.5 and although Hosannah was scratch I thought her greater experience would count. In the event I played 4th in the first two matches and 3rd in the last.

There were two other members of the team - Eddie Ward Petley, who was coming direct from South Africa; and Dudley Hamilton-Miller, our captain, who ran a prep school and was flying out and would join us shortly before the first Test. Although we would be six, the matches would consist of 5 singles and 2 doubles.

Well, I have no need to go over the results of that Test Series. We lost it by the narrowest of margins, winning the third and last Test having forfeited one match because of a car accident which meant that Eddie Ward Petley could not play. After the MacRobertson Trophy was finished we played in the New Zealand National Championships, where I won my first titles.

During our tour of New Zealand, Humphrey had suggested to me that it might be sensible for us to go on to Australia; after all, when would we be nearer? He wrote to Robert and Clare Tingey, who lived in Sydney. and we duly arrived there. We spent a couple of months touring Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, and even Tasmania (thank goodness Humphrey let me drive all the way), giving exhibition matches at many clubs on the way. During these we developed a technique which I have found useful in similar exhibitions since. If the game is extremely one-sided and one of you is going to win by 26, it is not very convincing if you stick in the rover from 6 inches. You can fool everybody by simply over-rolling a hoop (it doesn't have to be the rover), which looks most genuine.

"The Greatest Croquet Player I Have Ever Seen"

During these exhibition games I said to Humphrey, "Why don't you ever do triple peels?" (sextuples were almost unthought of in those days). "You want me to do triple peels?" said he, and churned them out without fault time and time again. But he didn't really enjoy them. He preferred subtle leaves like leaving the rush the wrong way round and making you work for your break.

Humphrey Hicks was in my opinion the greatest croquet player I have ever seen. He was the one I feared more than any other, good as Pat Cotter was. You somehow knew that Humphrey would hit the last lift. I remember particularly two games I lost to him, (there were of course many others) - one in an exhibition in Australia in 1951, when I had given contact and pegged him out, (showing off a bit, I suppose) and got two balls in the corners but the third was two feet out of the 2nd corner spot. With the contact, Humphrey took off from the ball in the fourth corner and got a rush behind the ball nearly on the second corner spot to the first hoop and finished the game.

In the Open Championships in England in about 1960 I remember playing him on court 5 at Hurlingham, and in a similar situation, having one of my balls in the second corner, and Humphrey's in the middle, I put my striker's ball in the fourth corner instead of the obvious, with hindsight - the third corner. Humphrey took contact from my ball in the fourth corner, split to the first hoop, got perfect position, ran it and finished the game.

He had the most unusual style, and I believe there are few photos which will illustrate exactly how unusual that was. In a strange way there was a similarity between Humphrey's and William Ormerod's, (though at greatly different levels of height from the ground).

Humprey held the mallet in an Irish grip, but considering the shaft was at least 3ft. 3 inches long, and he held it right at the top, playing side stance, it was a strange grip, his left hand holding the top of the shaft only with the thumb and forefinger. His real forte was the long rush. Most of us would only 'guarantee' a rush of about 1 foot, perhaps 2. Humphrey Hicks would almost invariably accurately pull off rushes of 2. 3 and 4 yards, something that few players today would be very confident about.

I have not noticed that any players today are able to play any shots better
than the best players of some years ago. In terms of technique I have not noticed that any players today are able to play any shots better than the best players of some years ago. Accuracy in rushing, split shots, long rolls was just as good then as it is now. I must however admit that long shooting is more accurate today, and I will say a little more about that shortly.

Solomon's Technique on Full Rolls Universally Adopted

In passing, I might mention that the present almost universal practice of playing full rolls by holding the lower hand near the bottom of the shaft was almost certainly my doing. Until 1951, and a year or two afterwards, everyone played long rolls holding the mallet more or less as one normally did, but stood much more over the balls and played well down so that the back ball jumped. They are much more difficult to play that way, and it is amazing how accurate some players could be.

When I was staying with the Tingeys in Sydney in 1951, Robert Tingey showed me that if you hold the mallet within an inch of the head and try to play a stop-shot, it is impossible; so that if you play a bit of a roll it becomes a full roll and a full roll becomes a pass roll, and so on. I had always been nervous of pushing or double tapping and this was a wonderful development for me and soon began to be adopted by more and more of the players here.

Another development today is the greater use of canons. They were of course played, even long before my time, but people were less adventurous, tended rather rarely deliberately to play for a canon, and more often than not would then only play 'the worm'. In fact I believe it was the New Zealanders who introduced us, in I think 1963, to the mini-canon, which can be so accurate.

One thing that seems completely to have disappeared, I am personally thankful to say, is the golf stance. It was never widely used, but I can remember Canon Pym from Bedford, who played regularly with D.D.Steel in the Counties, and Victor Evans, noted for having designed some of the CA ties and the flag, always played with a golf stance, and I have to say they were not ineffectual players, the Canon playing off a half and Victor Evans off +1.

The most remarkable player I ever saw was Monty Spencer Ell, who had no


But the most remarkable player I ever saw - and I knew him well - was Monty Spencer Ell, who had no arms. He had a couple of inches of his left arm, with which he could scratch his ear, and his right arm ended just above the elbow. He normally had a gadget with which he could do a number of things, but when he arrived at Roehampton, normally his man would cope with things, but on a number of occasions I would be the one to unclip his normal gadget and clip on his mallet, which was a steel shafted one about four feet long. He got his handicap down to scratch, and how he played long rolls I really do not know - but very well he played them.

He could take the clips off the hoops and put them on again if they were on the side, but not the top. He would gladly accept help but could manage remarkably on his own if he had to. In addition, he was one of the most charming men you could wish to meet.

Remembering the Remarkable Pat Cotter

Finally, I must say something about Pat Cotter, my partner for almost 25 years. He was a natural games player, having had a golf handicap of scratch, and he hit the ball very gently and delicately. He was not a particularly good shot, probably because he didn't usually hit the ball hard enough to stay on line. Even the splendid courts at Hurlingham are not absolutely true. He was a good tactician and we both favoured peeling partner through the first hoop to make the triple peel easier - or so we thought. (It only needs one good split at the beginning of the second break to get it going.)

I always got on very well with him and we were good friends, but some people found him a bit difficult, for he did have rather a short temper and he could be a bit curt on occasions. The problem was, I think, that he was highly intelligent, he was senior classics master at St. Pauls for as long as I knew him, he had been the world bridge champion in 1938, and he assumed that other people had a similar intelligence. If it transpired that they did not, he could be rather brusque. I cannot imagine how I managed to avoid this part of his character.

He wrote the bridge article in the Financial Times and in Country Life, and I remember on one occasion reading his article in the FT where he reproduced the hand with the last 4 tricks left to play. "It is obvious that West must discard the Ace of Spades in order to defeat the contract," I read. I'm not a very good bridge player and I couldn't fathom this. I even got a pack of cards and laid the hands out. I rang him up. "Patrick, why does West have to discard the Ace of Spades?" "Well," he said "if he does, then so and so, and so and so." "Oh, I see," I said, "then why couldn't you have said so?"

Breaking Down the Barriers of British Formality

One thing that he did early on when he took up croquet again in 1947 (he had hurt his foot and couldn't play in a golf tournament) was to break down the barriers of formality. In those days everyone was Mr. Reckitt, Miss Lintern, Mr. Longman, Mr. Elvey, and so on, even though they had known each other for 20 years or more. Within a year or so he was calling them Maurice, Daisy, Willy and Handel, and in no time nearly everyone else was doing the same.

We all play croquet for fun, for enjoyment, for relaxation, for exercise - yes, it can be energetic! At least I suppose we do; and yet how often do we hear people complain about some recent game, how badly they played, how well their opponent, how wet it was, or hot it was, or why couldn't they have stopped for tea? Whatever these problems, there are fortunately many moments of humour which all of us must have enjoyed at some stage, possibly on numerous occasions.

One of the best examples of this was told to me only quite recently and concerns Paul Hands, who was playing handicap doubles with a lady of about 24 - handicap that is. He laid up with her ball a yard in front of hoop 1, his own a foot in front of hers. She approached and went straight into the wire. At the next opportunity he laid up with her ball a foot in front, his own just beside. The same thing happened. At the next opportunity he contrived to get her ball in the jaws of the first hoop and his own waiting on the non-playing side.

At this point he was called away to referee a shot on another court. When he returned he found all the clips in the same positions and the balls scattered around the court. Upon enquiring what had happened, he was told that she had run the hoop the wrong way. "At that moment" said Paul, "I felt that the game was beginning to slip away from us!"

What Will Happen to Croquet in the Next Fifty Years?

Having considered something of the last 50 years, what of the next 50? It is a brave man who will stick his neck out with predictions for the future but I suppose it is something I am expected to do. Of course we must all hope, and have every confidence, that croquet will continue, at the very worst, at its present level of popularity; but there is no reason why we should not expect there to be an increase in the number of clubs and a corresponding increase in the number of tournaments available for us all to play in. In 1960 there were only four registered clubs north of Manchester; today there are 18.

There have always been some, like Brian Lloyd Pratt, who deplored our efforts for so many years to broaden the scope and interest of croquet and to make it available to a wider audience. Brian was vociferous in his opinion that it should remain an 'elitist' game and not one that should be played by the 'hoi polloi'. But I suppose everyone now realises that it is unlikely ever to become a mass spectator sport and command television audiences on a regular basis.

We may look with envy at bowls, which is regularly shown on TV. Here again is a sport that had the image, as croquet has had, of being an older persons game. Yet the international professional bowls tournaments today feature many younger players. Perhaps not many non-croquet players now realise that the cream of our croquet players are mostly under 30, and this applies also to Australia and New Zealand. If we can continue to attract young boys and girls, and particularly girls - of which we have a great shortage - in their teens, we will build up a strong nucleus from which the game will continue to develop.

"I Must Be Careful Not to Ignore Golf Croquet"

Before I look in a little more depth at the game we all play, I must be careful not to ignore golf croquet. I know, and sympathise with those who argue that the game is not golf and it is not croquet. The name is, I think, unfortunate. Perhaps a new name might be 'Hoops' or 'Mallets' or some such. But I have little sympathy with those who brush it aside as being of no merit. It has been found by a number of clubs to be an ideal way of attracting new members, many of whom soon take up Association croquet.

Croquet has often been described to me as 'vicious' - which I always agree with to the extent that if, at tennis, your opponent sends back a return that is head high or more, you will kill it. In snooker, players leave balls in baulk or get snookers. Almost every game is vicious in that sense, but there is of course no sending the balls into the shrubbery, which is what most non-players think of. Our croquet is mostly a very delicate game.

Not so golf croquet, however. Golf croquet is vicious and ought to be played with that intention. If you are knocking an opponent out of position it is no good sending it half a dozen yards away, it has to be knocked to the other end of the court. The Egyptians play with that spirit and are certainly the world champions in golf croquet.

"Why Do We Have to Keep Changing the Laws?"

But what of Association croquet itself? Will that remain as it is now, or will there be new developments in its format? I believe there should be, and I hope very much there will be. Here, there will be groans from many players who will be saying, or a any rate thinking, "Why do we have to keep changing the laws? They're always making changes." In fact, this is not so. True, there is a minor change to the laws almost every year, but these are to put right things which had been overlooked or to overcome the undesirable cleverness exhibited by ingenious people who have spotted a lacuna. I will give you two examples.

A few years ago someone, for a reason which now escapes me, decided it would be of help to him to take croquet by balancing the striker's ball, in hand, on top of the roqueted ball. This being undesirable, not least in terms of wasting time while trying to achieve the balance, the law now says "the striker must place the striker's ball on the ground in contact..."

Another instance took place as a result of a game I played in the 1963 New Zealand Championships following the MacRobertson Trophy, against Arthur Ross, the leading NZ player during the 30's, 40's and early 50's. Arthur had shot at my ball and gone off the side boundary, leaving me a nervy 7-yard roquet if I was to pick him up and build a break. I decided to be brave and took my aim. Looking up for a final time to verify my line of aim I saw Arthur, who had picked up his ball and was just replacing it. "Sorry, John", he said, "there was some mud on it". Pure gamesmanship as ever I saw.

I must say a little about Arthur Ross, whom I first met in 1950 in New Zealand. He was a very stylish player - in a natural way, not in any artificial way. He was still good in 1950, though past his very best, having first won the NZ Open Championship in 1922 and then seven more times before the war. He often played with a pipe in his mouth which he would sometimes throw to the boundary as his break became more involved. He visited England a couple of times after the war and won our Open Singles in 1954. At an international meeting at the end of the tournament to consider the laws there was no problem in changing the law to say that "a ball may be wiped by the striker at any time".

The Last Significant Change in the Laws

These changes are all cosmetic and have no real effect on the game that we all, at any level, play. The last time a change was made in the laws that had any significant effect on the way the game is played was in 1946 with the introduction of the second lift after 4-back and of contact if 1-back and 4-back were made in the same turn by the first ball.

This of course made an enormous difference to A class play (though not to lesser mortals where B class games were usually played under Variation B, allowing only one lift after 1-back - even the Inter County championship was played under Variation B for many years), and the advent of contact was responsible for the renaissance of the triple peel, since almost invariably the first player stopped at 4-back in order not to give away the innings by giving contact, and, if the lift were missed, the opportunity was there to finish the game in only one more turn by completing the triple peel.

There have been no changes to the laws of such significance since 1946.

The Illogic of the Half-Bisque and Mrs. Nickisson's Argument

One aspect of the game I have always considered to be illogical is the half-bisque, if only because it is purely a matter of chance whether one has one or not. If you have a half in your own handicap you are more likely than not either to receive or to give a half-bisque. If you do not, you will only receive a half-bisque if you play someone who happens to have a half in his or her handicap. I would prefer to see them either abolished or to allow a player the option of splitting a bisque into two halves if he so wants. I suspect that most would regard the latter as too expensive an operation, unless of course they already had a dozen or so bisques.

I nearly succeeded in getting Council to abolish the half-bisque when I was Chairman of Council in 1963 or 64. I proposed a motion to do so and there seemed to be some sympathy from the majority of members. But I went too far in my motion and proposed that those with a half in their handicap should go down a half if they were minus, and up a half if they were plus. That seemed to me to be fair. But I had reckoned without Mrs. Nickisson, a stalwart at Roehampton. She said, "Oh that won't do. I am a 2 and Daisy Jennings is a 4.5. I find it very difficult to beat her now; it will be impossible if I have to give her 3 bisques." I still think it worth considering.

The developments in the game since then have not been as a result of any law change but as a result of players during the last 15 years or so developing new leaves against lift shots, and these have had a significant effect on certain aspects of the game. I have to say that I see little advantage in some of the more convoluted of these leaves. Those that require opponent balls to be about one eight of an inch from a wire seem to me to go wrong more often than not because such accuracy has not been achieved, either giving the opponent an easy pick up if he hits, or the striker nothing if he misses because the ball is against the wire and is unrushable. I am declaring myself as an old fogey and a traditionalist and I make no apology for that.

I must say I find this swinging [over the ball when taking aim] the most

distasteful and boring development to have emerged in the last dozen or so


A contribution to the changes in leaves in recent years has been the much increased accuracy in shooting, particularly in shots of up to 15 yards or so, and I accept that this has forced some change in the thinking which governs the leave. I suppose this increased accuracy stems from the swinging which seems now to be universal when taking aim. I have to say that I find this the most distasteful and boring development to have emerged in the last dozen or so years. Three or four swings I can accept but 8 or more (and I have seen over a dozen on many occasions) is the biggest turn off imaginable. One change in the law I would welcome would prohibit the practice, but I realise that that is not practicable.

But this greater accuracy in shooting has led to lift shots being taken which I would describe as suicidal and would almost never have been contemplated twenty years ago. Having been a percentage player all my life I prefer to have the reasonable possibility of having another shot, rather than the virtual certainty of losing the game.

Proposals and Experiments in Shortening the Game

A change in practice which I would welcome - and there are quite a number who hope that it may soon happen - is one which will shorten the game considerably. It is interesting that during the 50's, attempts were made to encourage long bisquers to play one of the shortened variations. This was logical on the basis that those with handicaps in double figures took 5 hours to finish a game and even then frequently didn't do so. There were people who after playing for some three years had never actually pegged out. Such attempts to simplify the game for them were laudable but, paradoxically, were resisted by those very people on the grounds that if the experts played 26 points, why shouldn't they? They paid the same subscription to the CA and the same entry fee to the tournament.

I was responsible for the introduction of the full bisque game, although it had been mentioned many years before but never had any serious experiment. It has never achieved its objective, because it is even now used only rarely and I believe that the base is now set at far too high a level. It is also unpopular with longer bisquers only because they still do not know how to use their bisques; they hoard them instead of using them constructively.

If a base must be used I would hope that this would never be higher than 6, though I would prefer 4 or even 3. But, in addition, if the two players both have handicaps above the base, that should be ignored, so that if a 10 plays a 16 then they should each have their 10 or 16 bisques.

It only needs a relatively few long bisquers to start using their bisques attackingly and beating their more cautious opponents for others to realise what bisques are for. It really must be unjustifiable for two 16 bisquers to play each other on level terms, on exactly the same terms as opponents in the Open Championships, (without lifts, of course) and for us to feel surprised that they take so long over it.

In Praise of the 14-Point Game

An initiative taken by many of today's leading players, particularly those involved with the Croquet Players Association (a body for which I have the greatest respect and which I do not regard as being in any way competitive to the various national associations) have recently advocated the 14-point game - that is to say that game comprising of the first 6 hoops and the peg.

The point about it is that lifts (and contact) occur after the 3rd and 4th hoops. This gives little time to organise a triple peel, which now assumes much greater difficulty. This version of the game has a number of advantages. First, it can be played in an hour or so. Secondly, it is easier to explain to spectators and novices alike. Thirdly, it has the logic of comprising only one circuit of the hoops - what is the point of making them twice?

But I believe the fact that games can be played by experts in about an hour is a great advantage, and those with handicaps of up to about 15 should, with bisques, play it in no more than two hours. I hope very much that this version will be played more and more in our tournaments, and I would be more than happy if it were to become the only version of the game. However, I foresee the possibility of an ironical problem emerging. As I said earlier, long bisquers have consistently disliked playing shortened games while the rest of us play 26 points. If the 14-point game becomes standard, I would not be surprised if the longer bisquers complained that they weren't getting their money's worth if they cannot play 26 points! Well, we shall see.

Unfair Criticism of Croquet Organisations on the Internet

I have now to mention something that I find unpalatable, but which I believe needs to be said. I am sure most of you will know that the next World Championship takes place in a week's time in Bunbury, just south of Perth, Western Australia, and Barbara and I are off there tomorrow morning to fly the flag for the CA, and I am one of our delegates at the WCF meetings that will take place there. Not all of you may know that Chris Clarke, the holder of the title and therefore an automatic selection, has declined to go.

His reasons seem to be his concern that the organisation of the event may not conform to the conditions laid down, based on the unfortunate experience everyone had two years ago in France. To be fair to the French, no-one could have foreseen that the hotel everyone was booked into would go bust a few weeks beforehand. It is unfortunate that he should assume that the Australians may not be able to stick to the advertised conditions; accommodation for competitors will be provided free by the Australians, including continental breakfast, transport to the ground each day, and lunch.

He also sought to impose his own conditions, one at least of which could not be accepted by the organisers. I find it distressing that anyone can be so callous to the hosts who would be so happy to welcome him.

What is also distasteful to me is that correspondence on this subject by more than one of our younger players is on the Internet, and therefore available to almost everyone. It disparages the CA and is scathingly rude about other countries in the WCF. We are the senior Association in the world, we have the best players in the world, and that gives us a responsibility to behave with decorum and courtesy to others.

This childish behaviour does our cause no good, and I now take the opportunity to apologise to our friends overseas and to assure them that this behaviour is not typical of English croquet players. I hope such behaviour will now cease.

A Plea for More Hospitable Treatment of Visiting Teams

There is one aspect of our approach to the game, or rather the approach of those in authority in the CA, which I would hope can radically change, and that concerns the hospitality we are able to provide for visiting teams to this country. Or rather the lack of it!

Particularly during the last 25 years I have made many trips overseas, not as a member of a team, but in a private capacity, or rather as President of the Croquet Association - I think I have played in a dozen countries - and invariably have received wonderful hospitality. Sometimes my accommodation has been provided free, almost invariably meals at clubs have been at no charge, and I often find it embarrassing that we are unable to return such hospitality here. When setting budgets, I hope those responsible will double the figure they first thought of to cover this aspect.

Croquet has given me immense pleasure over the last 50 years, and I know there are thousands of players, in this country alone, who hold the same view. The fact that anyone wishes to join the Association is proof that they hold the game in high regard; I knew three or four ex-internationals in other sports - rugger, hockey and tennis - who took up croquet when age prevented them playing their more athletic sport, and who all said, "If only I had discovered croquet earlier!"

I can only hope that there will be a constant addition of players in the years to come, hopefully many of them reasonably young, who discover the delights, of which there are many, and the tribulations, of which there are a few, of the game which we all love.

[The foregoing inaugural Solomon Lecture is reprinted here in its entirety by permission of THE CROQUET GAZETTE and John Solomon.]

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