For the ninth time since the test match series began in 1988, a six-person American team will meet their opposite numbers in a week-long series of singles and doubles matches, this year at the Bowdon Croquet Club in England. And for the ninth time, the Brits will win - or so the oddsmakers will tell you.
In fact, the British team is not as daunting as it was last year. World champion Robert Fulford and former world champion Chris Clarke are not leading the British team in 1998, and that certainly reduces the fear quotient on the American side; add to that the absence of other formidable British veterans of international play, including Maugham, Mulliner, and Cornelius, and you may begin to nurture some faint hope for the Americans' chances.
But any way you slice it, the Brits are favored just as heavily this year as last year, when they went 16-4 against the Americans at Sherwood Country Club in Southern California. A comparative glance at the world rankings of this year's two teams tells the story:
How could the American team have any chance at all? The non-playing captain of the American team, Erv Peterson, is properly optimistic: "Remember, this is a single tournament, and anything can happen. Our team needs to keep its focus in the present and play one shot at a time, one game at a time." Peterson's management strategy therefore includes ignoring the history of the competition as well as the world ranking statistics - and quite properly so. But it is our duty to report both. Here is the record:
Year G. B. Matches Won U.S.A. Matches Won (Host Country) 1988 20 1 Britain 1989 15 5 U.S. 1990 19 2 Britain 1991 14 7 U.S. 1992 19 2 Britain 1994 14 7 U.S. 1995 18 0 Britain 1997 16 4 U.S.
A few words of explanation: The Solomon was not contested in 1993 and 1996. The best American results came in 1991 and 1994, when the Solomon was played in Palm Beach. And although, theoretically, there are 21 matches in each test (nine in doubles, 12 in singles), weather, too-tight scheduling, and illness have sometimes caused the tally to come up short - but never when the overall outcome was in doubt. The 1995 test in Britain was particularly painful for the Americans, when the entire team was felled early in the week by a stomach virus, and after 18 British match victories, the slaughter was called to a halt by mutual agreement. In 1997, when a best-of-five format was attempted, one doubles match was left uncompleted, tied at 2-2.
The Americans' worst results have been in Britain, where they have won a total of only five matches in four tests. On native soil, on the other hand, the Yanks have won 23 matches in four engagements.
The disappointing result of the Americans last year at Sherwood can be explained by the mutual decision of the captains to attempt best-of-five matches instead of the traditional best-of-three. Good Southern California weather and easy playing conditions encouraged this decision. But obviously, the best-of-five format put the underdog Americans at a disadvantage. In the opinion of Richard Hilditch (one of Britain's most experienced and respected referees and tournament managers), a return to best-of-three matches is the single factor that could most increase the American match tally.
The significance of the playing order
Perhaps the most significant contribution of the team captains is establishing the playing order - the ranking of players from first through sixth in order of current strength. In doubles, ranking of the teams doesn't matter, as all three doubles teams on each side play the opposing three teams, making a total of 9 doubles matches in the test. In singles, however, the playing order is a closely guarded secret, and for a very good reason. The ranking of each team - #1 through #6 - is revealed by the captains of the teams simultaneously immediately before Monday morning's start of play. Equally ranked players from each team play out 12 singles matches in groups of two. That is, the American #1 and #2 play the British #1 and #2, the #3's and #4's will play, and so on - making a total of 12 singles matches in the test.
The rankings in the past have been a subject of some controversy, as they have sometimes been at great odds with the current world rankings. These apparent oddities of ranking have been explained by such factors as jet lag, current playing form, and even illness. Whatever the explanations given by the captains who set the rankings, they are a critical factor in the outcome. If by happenstance the strongest players on one team are matched against the weakest on the other, the intention behind the rankings will be thwarted and the results will be skewed in favor of the weaker team.
Everything you need to know about Bowdon
Hilditch cites the Bowdon venue itself as a potential factor in shaping the results. "Bowdon's four good lawns have been improved in recent years by applying a lot of money to level the surface and improve the quality of the grass," he comments. "The ground is very hard - as is more common in Britain, where lawns are not sand-based as in America) and so the hoops can be set very firmly. This is the measure that the top players use for 'good' conditions - so 'good' conditions can make the lawns difficult to play." Difficult conditions make breaks and peeling series more difficult to control, yielding more opportunities for turn-overs.
But Hilditch warns of another possibility, recalling the test matches between America and Britain in the MacRobertson Shield in 1996, which were also played at Bowdon - a suburb of Manchester. "Manchester is famous for getting quite a bit of rain," according to Hilditch, "which means the lawns can get flooded and become unusable at times. In the 1996 MacRobertson, an overnight water main burst, flooding the lawns and covering them with silt! The U.S. were destroyed in that encounter, and this will not be a venue they will relish returning to."
But those were different Americans, in the main. This year's crop may find Bowdon more to their liking. The Bowdon club is private (not Council-owned) in an exclusive southern suburb of Manchester, about 200 miles northwest of London. The membership is typical of Britain, according to Hilditch - middle-class, white, a mixture of retired and working people with a smattering of younger players. In the past, the club's contacts with a strong private school, Manchester Grammar School, has resulted in some significant recruitments into the sport. The top players in the club currently are David Maugham and Colin Irwin. Bowdon has 120 members, according to Brian Storey's Web page.
The Bowdon Club has a commodious clubhouse complete with bar and kitchen, on the top of which is a gallery for spectators affording good views across the lawns. There's also a practice lawn and two shelters at courtside to afford protection from the English weather. Within a mile of Bowdon, Hilditch reports, there are "a definitive British chip shop and kebab house and an excellent Canadian charcoal pit burger shop as well as more up-market eating facilities. The Bowdon side of Manchester is firmly Manchester United country - the wealthiest soccer club in Europe."
Introducing the British team
Four of the six members of the British team gave us their "croquet biographies," which, considered as a group, may point to some significant differences between the two teams. The British, on their tight-knit little island, seem to immerse themselves totally in the local croquet culture, playing often, playing in everything, taking up multiple roles of responsibility in the organization and management of the sport. While members of the American team do contribute in vital ways to American croquet, on the whole they do not bring to the sport the same depth and intensity of experience.
Steve Comish, the captain, is the most experienced of the British team in recent international play. Since 1994, he has played on every Great Britain team, including the 1996 MacRobertson Shield and the 1997 Solomon at Sherwood, where his unerring hit-in's inspired awe among players and spectators alike. He was introduced to the sport as recently as 1987 by Don Gaunt.
Gaunt, at 59 the oldest member of the British team, acknowledges that his biggest ambition is "to play well enough in this and subsequent events to get selected for the team which travels to America in 1999. I hope to be able to show, like Jackson of New Zealand has, that age need not be a barrier to good play. Gaunt is an experienced tournament manager, editor of the World Croquet Calendar on the Internet, and author of three croquet books. He was awarded the first Croquet Association "services to croquet" medal in 1998.
Colin Irwin is 46 years old, UK Sales Manager for a major multinational chemical company. He has played for Britain on the MacRobertson teams of 1986, 1990, and 1993. He is a Championship and Examining referee for croquet, and he admits to other interests as well - including "playing golf badly", enjoying wine, and tending his garden. His wife, Chris Irwin, who will play in the American rules Presidents Cup preceding the International rules Solomon Trophy play, is also a Championship and Examining referee. She managed the WCFR World Championship in England as well as France, and has refereed at the MacRobertson in England.
Keith Aiton says he enjoys playing against the U.S. for the good competition and the socializing. "This year I am particularly looking forward to meeting Jacques Fournier [the 16-year-old who is the highest ranking American], as I have heard he is a very good prospect and I am hoping to be able to give him some encouragement to fulfill his potential." Aiton, 39, is a tax consultant by profession and a croquet coach by hobby. He took up the game at Cambridge University in 1980 and played in the first Solomon Trophy matches at Nottingham in 1998. (His singles were against the late Jack Osborn, founding president of the USCA, and U.S. coach Teddy Prentis.) He coached the British team for the MacRobertson Shield matches of 1990, 1993, and 1996. But in recent years, Aiton has returned to his personal best form as a player. Although he is the lowest ranked Brit on the team, at #43 in the world rankings, he is nobody's pushover.
The American rules doubles sideshow
It's not considered a very important part of the meeting of the two teams - as witnessed by the tradition of the host country of sending in a weaker set of players than in International rules - but it is a matter of some interest, especially to the Americans. Americans see their best chance of winning games in the one-day American rules doubles known as the President's Cup. When Americans play in Britain (with the same team for both competitions) they have the strongest hope of winning against the Brits.
This year, three British players - Cordingley, Gaunt, and Colin Irwin - will play in both International Rules and American rules matches; while three weaker players will join them in the American rules doubles: Chris Irwin, Martin Murray, and the legendary John Solomon, president of the British Croquet Association. This year, the President's Cup will begin the competition, on Sunday, July 5th. A good showing could sigificantly shore up American morale for the subsequent five days of International rules play.
How the Solomon Trophy matches began
Croquet World Online Magazine asked John Solomon about the origins of the tournament, as he recalls them. USCA founder Jack Osborn encouraged the visits of prominent British players, as well as players from New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. Like Solomon, Bernard Neal had been invited to America by Osborn a couple of times. According to Solomon, 'It was Bernard Neal who proposed to our Council that it would help the Americans if we could formally institute an international competition between the two countries, under International rules - and this would help them enter the MacRobertson Trophy - and he proposed that a cup be presented under my name."
And so, the Solomon Trophy was created. Solomon recalls, "The cup was purchased by the CA, and I had nothing to do with it, other than the fact that I personally went to a friend of mine who was one of the most highly regarded silversmiths in the country and selected the trophy (which was paid for the by the CA). It was a very beautiful cup, made by an American silversmith around 1920, I believe. Unfortunately, it was stolen when the CA office was broken into a couple of years ago. We got a replacement two years ago, but it does not compare to the original."
If the British win at least 11 of the 21 matches in the 1998 Solomon Trophy, the cup will stay in Britain, its permanent home since the beginning of the competition.
After the American rules doubles "warm-up" on Sunday, The Solomon Trophy proper begins on Monday, July 6th, with best-of-three doubles match play, doubles on Wednesday and Friday and all the singles play on Tuesday and Thursday.
Croquet World Online Magazine will follow the matches closely all week, with "newsflashes" posted on the front page, linked to frequent postings on the Events Board.
[Thanks are due to Richard Hilditch, John Solomon, Ian Burridge, Erv Peterson, and members of the British team for background information contributing to this report.]
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