Not since 1989 has England's Croquet Association produced a new edition of "The Laws of Association Croquet and the Regulations for Tournaments", traditionally acknowledged as the official world standard for the sport.
For the half century or so in which the MacRobertson Shield international team competition has been held between England, New Zealand, and Australia, those countries have agreed to agree on the Laws. The U.S. was included in the MacRobertson Shield for the first time in 1993. The MacRobertson Shield events, happening approximately every three years, provide the occasion for discussion and agreement on the evolution of the Laws. The English Croquet Association assumed the role of "custodian" of the laws, reflected in the makeup of the current International Laws Revision Committee, with Englishman Stephen Mulliner as Chairman of the committee. (The other members are Merv Dunkley of Australia; Graham Roberts of New Zealand, and Jerry Stark of the U.S.)
At issue is not only specific laws and rulings, but also the approach to be taken in undertaking a sweeping revision. Olsen strove for clarity of language and the utmost economy of verbiage, to keep the Laws brief. Mulliner's approach was to attempt to make the Laws more reader friendly not by reducing their length, but by making each section as self-contained as possible (with a minimum of cross-referencing), enabling readers to gain a complete understanding of a sub-topic without having to search through other sections of the volume.
A case can be made for either approach, and Olsen has made his case with a stridency and overstatement which has at times alienated potential allies. Nevertheless, Olsen has acknowledged in a letter to the New South Wales Association, "In spite of the problems, a vast amount of effort has been put in by many people and a lot of good work has been done. It would be a great pity if that was overshadowed by the major problems not being addressed."
Riches has adopted a more conciliatory tone, granting that the added volume of the Laws is justified by the benefits of greater clarity and improved organization.
Waiting on the sidelines: the WCF
Although World Croquet Federation president Tony Hall has publicly stated many times that the WCF should be the official organizing body of the sport in all respects, and that all the croquet-playing countries of the world should participate through the world body in revising the Laws, the WCF has diplomatically "recognized" the authority of International Laws Revision Committee to conduct its work - for the present.
And for the present, this arrangement could be a political blessing in disguise for the WCF. Making new Laws is no way to win a popularity contest, as the debate has shown.
It is possible - but unlikely - that further changes could be made in the Laws before they are committed to print within the next couple of months. Chairman Mulliner has called for comments and criticisms based on the online preview, but the wording of his request suggests that he is looking for superficial copy-editing refinements rather than structural "improvements" or substantial changes in wording.
Acknowledging that the Revised Laws cannot possibly cover all possible playing situations, the ILRC has proposed to publish, in addition to the Revised Laws, a "Talmud" of official rulings, interpretations, and analysis which over time will tend to fill in the gaps and clear up the contradictions discovered in real-life scenarios. This approach has been successfully taken in golf and other sports. The "Official Rulings on the Laws of Croquet" will be published well before September 2000, according to Mulliner.
Will Mulliner and the ILRC prevail, despite the objections of Olsen and others? Most probably. Despite an official letter from the New South Wales Association to Croquet Australia appealing to the national body to reject the new Laws, all the major national associations have agreed in principle to the proposed Revisions. In the Southern hemisphere, the Revised Laws will most probably take effect at the beginning of their playing season on September 1. The English Croquet Association at its last annual meeting authorized its Laws Committee "to approve and publish the final agreed text, to come into force within the domain on 1 January 2001, after notification in the Croquet Gazette."
In the meantime, in America...
The Rules Committee of the USCA has struggled with similar issues for almost as long as the International Laws Revision Committee, but with less sweeping results. The chairman of the USCA Rules Committee, former national champion and retired veterinarian Jim Hughes, acknowledges himself to be the protector of the status quo and defender of the rules. In contrast to the comparatively open process of the ILRC, Hughes has not participated in open debate and has in fact declined to respond to or in some cases even acknowledge questions and criticism from USCA members on specific rules issues.
In contrast to Mulliner, Hughes has rejected a proposal to put the revised rules online subject to broad review prior to publication, because, reportedly, this would be "unfair to people who are not online." After all the members of the USCA have received the printed version - which could go to press as early as August 1 - the revision can then, presumably, be displayed on the USCA Website, www.CroquetAmerica.com.
Online technology can provide benefits to readers unavailable in print media. The key-word search engine is the best example of this, augmenting the index and providing in many cases quick access to information readers with printed versions could find only by thumbing through the entire volume. (This feature could reasonably be viewed as "unfair to USCA members who aren't online," but so far the Rules Committee - to their credit - has made no attempt to shut down the search engine.)
As for the printed version, because so few changes have been made in the American rules with this new edition - and none of consequence - all of this is a matter of small concern to the majority of players. The index and glossary in the old edition are both reasonably well done. Players seldom even read the sections on etiquette and custom or the rules provided for Golf Croquet or Nine-Wicket Croquet. It will be left to another committee and a future edition to undertake a serious revision of the American rules to untie the knots, clarify the language, and make the rules more user-friendly for novices and experienced players alike - as the ILRC has attempted to do with the "Association" Laws under Mulliner's direction.
The criticism leveled at Mulliner and the ILRC has been intense. Their task would have been far easier if they had followed the "closed" strategy of the USCA Rules Committee. But there is a payoff at the end of their agony: The certainty that opening up the process and inviting the scrutiny of Olsen, Riches, and other critics has helped to produce a 6th Edition of the Laws much better than it otherwise would have been.
In closing: the tenor of the debate
The following excerpt from exchanges between Peter Olsen of the Australia Laws Committee and Stephen Mulliner does not embrace all the points at issue, and is offered here only to illustrate the nature of the disagreements still unresolved. The numbered paragraphs are from Olsen. The unnumbered reposes are from Mulliner. Warning: Only those few readers with a taste for legalese should proceed.
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