Judging from the three-year history of golf croquet's world championship and the statistics of the 1998 players representing 12 of the 20 WCF member countries, only a major miracle can prevent the Egyptians winning the 1998 championship and taking most of the other top places, as they did in 1996 in Italy and in 1997 in Egypt. The game being played is, after all, an only slightly altered version of what has been Egypt's official national version of croquet for decades past. (Until recently, International Rules Croquet was not recognized by the Egyptian association, and even today, it is not much played in the country.)
An Egyptian engineer who plays his croquet at the Cairo's Gezira Club, in the middle the Nile, won the championship in 1997 and is again a favorite. He defeated a 34-year-old Egyptian pop singer, Walid Salah in the finals. The losing semi-finalists were also Egyptians. In fifth place was a member of the American team, a native-born Egyptian.
The championship's preliminary round is divided into eight round-robin blocks of six. The top four in each block will then advance to a single-elimination ladder of sixteen with best-of-three-game matches.
Who, besides the Egyptians, will get out of the qualifying rounds and have a shot at engineering a miracle in the "round of sixteen"? Except for the Americans, it's hard to find good non-Egyptian finalist candidates. Among the major croquet-playing countries, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are all represented, but not by top players. Tony Hall of Australia, chairman of the World Croquet Federation working party who hammered out the official rules of the championship, is the sole representative of Australia, at #157 in the WCF world rankings. New Zealand's lone entry, Charles Jones, is ranked at #172.
None of the Egyptians is on the world ranking list. Yet with eleven invited and nominated players in the lineup - not even counting two more Egyptians among the "wild cards" chosen to fill out empty spots in the roster from eight of the WCF member countries not sending players - Egypt has the edge both in both numbers and expertise.
Yanks are determined underdogs
In the Cairo championship last year it was the Americans who tried harder in second place, making it to the final sixteen with all four players - three transplanted Egyptian-Americans and one genuine native Yank, Mark Najarian of Massachusetts.
Once again, the American team in 1998 is "loaded", but in a slightly different way. Two of the team members - brothers Sherif Abdelwahab and Ihab Abdelwahab, were born beside the Nile; the third is Mik Mehas, one of the strongest players in the U.S. (and the only competitor in the top fifty in the current official World Rankings for the International Rules game); and the fourth is Jim Houser, a dark horse who was encouraged to join the team by Bob Kroeger, chairman of the U.S. Croquet Association Selection Committee, on the strength of the exceptional accuracy of his one-ball strokes.
Houser, who makes his living in New York trading on the floor as a member of the American Stock Exchange, first played croquet in 1994. He's a Life Master in Bridge who notes a high correlation between games playing and options trading. Houser goes to Leamington Spa with some solid tournament experience behind him, including Delaware's International Rules invitational and the USCA American Rules nationals, and some practice play in Boston with Sherif Abdelwahab, whose fifth place finish in Cairo last year was the highest of any non-Egyptian team member.
The presence of Mehas may begin to answer the question that has hovered in the background of these competitions for three years: Mohammad Kamal of Beverly Hills, California, who was on the American team last year, talked Mehas into joining the team this year, vowing to train him as well. "He's one of the smartest players in the country, and I'm sure he'll pick up the new rules and the tactics very quickly."
The Egyptians have mastered highly specialized skills
Could the top-ranked players in International Rules Croquet quickly learn to excel in Egyptian Rules golf croquet? Mehas may provide the best test we'll see this year. Opinion is divided. According to Chris Hudson, Secretary General of the World Croquet Federation, the Egyptian game calls for a highly- specialized set of skills distinct from the skills required to excel in International Rules croquet. "They have a large number of young men and women who practise each day for a couple of hours or so and are extremely consistent at running hoops from seven yards or more and hitting in at 20 yards or longer.. My first experience of Egypt was to watch a player practise by putting all four balls in a line alongside hoop 1, and hitting all four through hoop 2!"
Egyptian-trained players tend to agree with Hudson's viewpoint, but some top- ranked International Rules players aren't so sure. Former world champion Chris Clarke suggests that with some practice, the players at the top of the rankings might compete very well. Then why don't they? "It's a matter of time and priorities," Clarke says. Most International Rules players manage to play most of the top International Rules tournaments with difficulty, as they also have busy working lives. They can't work in another version of the game and maintain their working lives. Clarke confesses to enjoying the play of Golf Croquet and has won the British championship in both singles and doubles. But he also acknowledges, "I do not regard myself as being brilliant a golf croquet due to my variable shooting, but would be happy to play a Test match against Egypt over a weekend to put my abilities to the test."
Jerry Stark of the U.S. also likes the game and also has to budget his time. "I don't have time to play the USCA game. If I want to beat Fulford and Clarke, I have to concentrate on International Rules play." Stark thinks he could be as good as the Egyptians in their game - but he's not sure.
This problem will get worse, not better. After only two years of golf croquet world championships, most of the major countries have scheduled qualifying tournaments for selecting players from regional and national golf croquet championships. This has already occurred in England and Australia. New Zealand will hold its first National Golf Croquet Championship in 1999. Steve Jones, who has one of the most distinguished playing records of the New Zealanders, believes that the popular attitude towards golf croquet in New Zealand might begin to shift. "It's known as a game for beginner play and is therefore 'demeaning' for seasoned players. Since few have played it since their early days, they cannot really understand the subtleties of the game. Perhaps they feel threatened, if they perceive that it might overtake their beloved International Rules game."
The championship is succeeding as an annual event
The World Croquet Federation has succeeded admirably in finding good sponsors for three consecutive golf croquet world championship. The reason, perhaps, is the lower cost to a sponsor of producing the championship: a licence fee to the WCF of 1,000 pounds sterling and a promise to billet the players and pick up most of their local expenses. (The players or associations must pay their own air fares.)
Negotiations are under way to hold the championship in the United States in October of 1999, and the Australians want to host it in the year 2000 or 200l. Does this mean that the WCF intends to have this event annually, unlike the International Rules world championship, which is not to be held in 1998 and is not produced in MacRobertson Shield years? Bill Berne, president of the WCF, is not sure. "The WCF Championship is succeeding and will be an annual event until it is well established, at which time we may go to a different schedule such as every other year." Berne holds out the possibility of regional qualifiers in the U.S. for next year and believes the game can be used effectively to promote the sport to the public, if enough players can be motivated to participate. Berne has a point. Players in the U.S. and Canada already have two versions of croquet, and may not be willing to seriously compete in any form of golf croquet.
Answering sport's ultimate question: Who's the best?
Whether the top players will choose to engage seriously in golf croquet competitions is an open question. Unless and until they do, the bigger unanswered question behind the world championship will remain unanswered: Just how good are the Egyptians in the sport of croquet? And from the Egyptians' point of view, just how good are the top-ranked Association players in Egyptian rules? A case can be made, after all, that it is the Egyptian rules game that demands the greatest shot-making expertise - in the same way critics have been fond of saying that International Rules play promotes better shot- making than American Rules. If excellence in shot-making equates to the highest attainment in the sport of croquet, who can deny that the Egyptians are the best croquet players in the world? Surely, this question must be answered, somehow, somewhere.
But it's a question that will not be settled until somebody puts together an Egyptian Rules test match pitting Egypt's best against top-ranked International Rules players. . The possibility of such an event has been mentioned, but nobody has come forward to get it done. Why not?
In the meantime, the Leamington Spa championship helps to promote and broaden a bit the international base of a form of the sport still little known even to most dedicated croquet players and whose future in the croquet world is yet to be resolved: Egyptian Golf Croquet.
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