At some point in the month of May, the USCA, on the advice of some combination of the International and Selection committees, decided to cancel the 2007 Solomon Trophy matches scheduled to be played July 18-21 in Manchester's Heaton Park, a large complex built for the Commonwealth games with three croquet lawns said to be the best in England. According to the USCA Selection Committee, only three of the invitees had responded to their invitation to be on the 6-person American team: Jim Bast, David Bent, and Stewart Jackson.
USCA president Rich Curtis gives two explanations for what happened: "...the unavailability of some players because of the recent MacRob and the fact that the USCA didn't do a good enough job of getting notice out to a wider range of potential players early enough."
Rhys Thomas, chair of the USCA International Committee, was more explicit: "I believe we failed to select a 2007 Solomon team due to poor advance planning and poorer player notification. Not enough USCA players were apprised of the opportunity to compete...and subsequently, not enough players made themselves available to field a full team. The International Committee and Selection Committee will strive to make sure this does not happen again."
"It's also, in my experience, an extremely enjoyable event to play in," Cordingley continues. "Moreover, I would have thought the Yanks' relatively good showing in the Mac had some connection to their experience in the Solomon."
As to the future of the Solomon, Cordingley says, "Rob [Fulford] will be talking with Jerry [Stark] and others about the future of the event, and I've asked him to make it clear we'd be very disappointed if it came to an end altogether."
Stephen Mulliner, a veteran members of British teams, reflects the common-held view on both sides of the Atlantic that the Solomon should have been played with whatever teams were available, commenting on the Nottingham Board, "I was asked by Jerry Stark, when he visited the North American Open in May, whether I thought it was better to field a weak US Solomon Trophy team or to scrap the event for this year. I had no hesitation in recommending the former."
Tremaine Arkley, stage-manager of the prestigious Resort Invitational in Oregon, weights in with, "I think the USCA Selection Committee, despite good intentions, blew it this year by not going down deep to come up with a Solomon Trophy team regardless of the strength of the final choices. As a member of many weak Solomon Trophy teams in the past, I can say that the experience gained was what was needed for us to achieve a higher standard of play. It was just plain short sighted not to have given the opportunity this year for lower ranked USA players to go overseas and compete against Great Britain. All of them would have come back better for the experience."
If the furor over the cancellation of the 2007 Solomon has revealed anything useful, it's the extreme popularity of this event with players on both sides of the Atlantic. Rhys Thomas, head of the US International Committee, as well as everyone in the planning and selection processes, affirms that the Solomon tradition will continue. In response to Croquet World's direct query, Thomas said flatly, "Yes, we will contest the Solomon in England in 2008."
What are the lessons learned?
There is near unanimity on the American side about what should be done to prevent a recurrence. Johnny Mitchell, chair of the US Selection Committee, said that 73 invitations were sent out to "eligible Americans" in March, four months before the 2007 Solomon was set to be played in July. Mitchell, USCA president Rich Curtis, and others on the US International Committee (which decides the whether/when/where of international events) all affirm that in the future invitations will be sent out earlier to ensure that the best available team can be selected.
Mitchell, as chairman of the US Selection Committee, is ultimately responsible for deciding exactly who should be invited, and this issue is likely to be much debated over the next six months, as selections for the 2008 American team are contemplated. The question has two parts: First, should the invitations be made on the basis of ranking alone? And secondly: Should the geographical base of the American team be expanded to include Canada and other non-US members of the USCA in the American hemisphere?
Leo McBride, one of the top two top Canadian players (along with Brian Cumming) who would be affected by a geographical expansion of Solomon selections, has mounted an active campaign to have Canada included not only in the Solomon, but also in the sport's ultimate team event, the four-nation MacRobertson Shield, contested approximately every three years among the UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand. Although getting the approval of the MacRob nations for such an expansion may prove to be a difficult and lengthy process - as it would strengthen an American team which has already displaced one or another of the New Zealand and Australian teams in the last three MacRob confrontations - including Canadian in the invitations for the 2008 and future editions of the Solomon Trophy matches appears at this point to be a virtual fait accompli.
Cordingley and members of the likely British side of the Solomon have raised no objection to including Canada in future Solomons, and in fact informally approved an expansion this year, when the scarcity of eligible players were revealed. But this determination was not reached until May, and by that time, both top Canadian players were unwilling to adjust their playing schedule. (McBride maintains that he surely would have joined the team if he had been asked in March, with the other 73 invitees, and he would have played in the British Opens as well, as the two events were scheduled back-to-back.)
Whither the MacRob?
Jim Nicklasson, President of Croquet Canada and member of the USCA, supports the creation of a "unified North American team" and is also one of many who have suggested the creation of a "second tier" for the MacRobertson Shield international team event, currently limited to the top four countries. "With the agreement of the President of the USCA," he says, "I would offer to start a dialog with the USCA on...developing a plan to propose to the croquet associations within North America and then to the rest of the MacRob participants." The "other associations" in addition to US and Canada might be Bermuda, Mexico, and St. Croix.
One can only imagine how cumbersome the process might become of grinding through numerous committees in the "big four" countries a detailed proposal for altering the conditions of the venerable MacRobertson Shield team competition. But perhaps the World Croquet Federation could effectively godfather such a process to a successful conclusion. There have been various changes in the MacRob format over the eighty years, the most recent of which was bringing in the late-blooming US in the late eighties.
Rhys Thomas of the USCA International Committee is cautiously optimistic: "Having considerable responsibility for what you've been told in the past, I want to assure you that the International Committee is exploring all options for 'USCA' teams. It's a tricky, heated and contentious matter, one that is loosely governed simultaneously by the WCF and all its members, and the current MacRob nations - the Big Four. The MacRob, at 80 years old, has always defined 'eligibility' and tends to overshadow the WCF, which is barely two decades old.
"But the WCF has credible guidelines that suit all. Still, eligibility in the modern era of croquet is always being negotiated. That's why the Selection Committee recently petitioned Great Britain to allow Canadian inclusion in this year's Solomon Trophy test match. Unfortunately, that didn't work out [because of the Canadians' unavailability]. But such circumstances afford us all the opportunity to reexamine the question, and maybe sway some additional votes. It may take time, but it's a positive step forward."
North Carolina fills a void
As it turns out, the cancellation of the 2007 Solomon has not amounted, at all, to preventing top-level transatlantic competition. In fact, "the North Carolina boys" scheduled a superb top-level team competition for late June at Pinehurst featuring what Danny Hunnycutt has described as "the strongest international team ever assembled" to take on North Carolina's top six players - who are very nearly America's top six in the current era of North Carolina's dominance of American player-power. (See detailed reports on this "International Select Teams" event on our Bulletin Board.)
Another new North Carolina event that promises to be super-popular with top players is the North Carolina Teams Challenge in August 2007, for which invitations were sent out in February (USCA Selection Committee: Take note of the timing!). The team event will be similar to the MacRob, and the admirably strong teams, of balanced strength, have already been announced: The North Carolina team will be Danny Huneycutt, Jeff Soo, Paul Scott, Damon Bidencope, Bob Cherry and Ron Lloyd. The "rest of the USCA" team will be: Leo McBride, Jerry Stark, Rich Lamm, Brian Cumming, Stewart Jackson and Doug Grimsley - including the two top Canadians, Cumming and McBride. According to Ron Lloyd, the Pinehurst resident croquet pro who has a major hand in planning and organizing the events, plans are underway to expand the number of teams in 2008.
Although on an official level, everyone is careful to say that the star-studded International team event the North Carolinians organized for late June was not planned as a substitute for the Solomon and should not be considered in any way a "cause" of the Solomon cancellation, comments of some USCA officials have implicitly made the opposite case, including the suggestion that the North Carolinians have been "self-serving" when they should be doing more to support USCA croquet generally.
This criticism brought a stinging rebuke from Danny Huneycutt, the North Carolinian who is now the top-ranked American by a small margin. "For all you guys making comments [that] North Carolina should raise money for USA teams before sponsoring our own events, there are either short memories or ignorance. The NC District put on a major fund raiser this past year, and each MacRob player received a sizable supplement from the USCA to cover cost, most of which came from the NC efforts. Others talked about it, but nothing happened."
Louis Nel, former president of Croquet Canada, summed up the leadership role taken by North Carolina this way: "During the last few years North Carolina has reshaped the croquet landscape in North America and has become its center of gravity. As far as I am aware, they did not get any special favors from the USCA towards this development; they did it through their own initiative and hard work - tournaments, clinics, and general good organization. To look upon their further initiatives as 'self serving' seems unfair to say the least..."
All croquet is local
The historic pattern of croquet's growth in America through a succession of strong local and regional developments - in Florida, Arizona, Northern California, and now North Carolina - has shown that the most effective development work is always done by as close-knit group of enthusiastic players and organizers, with hands-on responsibility for their work and their results. The USCA Planning Committee has implicitly acknowledged the nature of the USCA organizational beast - the diffuse structure of a national volunteer-based organization and the difficulty of coordinating effective "national" initiatives.
The USCA Planning Committee - chaired by North Carolinian Gene Young and with other North Carolinians in key roles - have provisionally adopted a slogan for their 2008 planning year: ALL CROQUET IS LOCAL. The intention is to have the national organization do what it can to support local action, rather than try to direct local activity from a central point. Applied to North Carolina's role in current events, instead of worrying about how North Carolina is stealing the USCA's thunder, the USCA might well ask the North Carolina boys, "What can we do to help your brilliant initiatives in bringing top-level croquet to the US and promoting the growth of our sport?" And even further, "What can we learn from your good example?"
North Carolina initiatives have done a lot to compensate for the often lackluster performance of the official American croquet national organizations and the 12-court National Croquet Center owned by the Croquet Foundation of America which, by all rights and expectations, should be managed and promoted as the worldwide mecca of the sport. Instead, the National Croquet Center, in abandoning the internationally promoted annual annuals held in its first years - "Association Croquet the English Way" and the "International Croquet Festival" - has created a leadership vacuum which the "North Carolina boys" have filled admirably, with high industry and enterprise. Despite the limited court space at Pinehurst (compared with the 12-court Center in Florida) North Carolina is clearly the most popular American venue for top-ranked players everywhere.
Only the USCA's "Selection Eights" event in October at the National Croquet Center offers a comparable opportunity for top-level Americans (up to 28 of them) to hone their skills in competition. So North Carolina is providing a more effective training ground for the development of USCA players than the "national" croquet entities. Is there anything wrong with that picture? No, not necessarily, not as long as the job is getting done. Clearly, the North Carolina boys are getting it done.
Moreover, the bigwigs of the USCA have pledged to do a better job next year. They should be taken at their word.
We have created a public forum open to everyone for comment on this issue, so nobody's viewpoint needs to be unrepresented. Just click on this link to the Bulletin Board Forum on "The Solomon '07 Cancellation", then click on the the SUBMIT A POSTING link at the top of the index, and follow the menu.
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