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Talking Croquet with Robert Fulford

by Neil Williams
 RELATED LINKS
 • Talking Croquet with Nigel Aspinall, by Neil Williams
 • Talking Croquet with John Solomon, by Neil Williams
 • Bob Alman's Courtside Chat with Robert Fulford
 • Bob Alman's Courtside Chat with Chris Clarke
 • Bob Alman's Courtside Chat with Debbie Cornelius


This is the second in our series of Neil Williams interviews originally published in the English Croquet Gazette on the playing careers and views of some of the players who have made a significant contribution to the sport. We reprint these interviews by permission of the author and the Croquet Gazette.
Croquet moves on. Change is evident throughout the game - in the ways in which it is administered and organised, in the variety of formats that tournaments now take, in the array of different forms of the game that are actually played. Even in the heartlands of the game - 26-point Association croquet - a quiet revolution has been underway and its waves are spreading across the whole croquet world.

Fulford (right) is congratulated by runner-up Mark Saurin at the 1990 World Championships at Hurlingham.
In Robert Fulford, the present Open Champion and World Champion - both for the fourth time - the new world of croquet is embodied. His record also includes "everything else at least once so far", as he puts it, including the New Zealand, Australian and French Opens and the Sonoma Cutrer in California, not to mention appearances in three MacRobertson Shield series.

It is not the internationalism of this list of achievements that is new - although the sheer scale of his global involvement certainly is. It is that Fulford and the other players at the top of the WCF rankings approach croquet untrammelled by the past.

When he tells me that for six years he was "a croquet bum" in the US, making just enough money from the game to head for the next town, our traditional notion of the croquet player needs a bit of revision. For four of those years Robert spent the summer as club pro in North Carolina. "If you have the 'World Champion' tag there are a couple of places where you could be a club pro and live comfortably, he says.

Where now is the original garden pastime whose chief attraction was that it allowed middle class young ladies and gentlemen to meet outdoors unchaperoned, and daily in the shrubbery pretending to look for a lost ball? Equally lost are those long Edwardian summer afternoons, when the top players moved from house party to house party, playing in the week-long tournaments. Even the familiar circuit traveled by more recent generations of top players - the Caskets, the Opens, the President's and, finally, Eastboume in September - begins to fade into history. We think now of the wine auction that comes at the end of the Sonoma event in California (not to mention the cheque to the winner of f3,000), rather than of the chill and damp of the end of the English season.

In the course of our absorbing conversation in central London, Robert gives me an insight into his thinking about many aspects of the game as it now is. In the process he measures the distance we have come, and I realise ever more sharply that the changes now overtaking croquet are as great as any it has seen in its history.

It started with snooker

To begin with, his background is instructive. Now 29, Robert is the youngest of four brothers - quite a spur to competitiveness, he agrees. An early influence on his game was playing snooker on a small table at home when he was about 9. Later, his school, Colchester Grammar School, allowed a group of senior pupils, through an informal arrangement between the PE staff at school and the Colchester Croquet Club, to play croquet as an alternative to other sports on games afternoons in summer. Although the arrangement petered out, it had lasted long enough for Robert's interest to have been kindled. (The quality, if not the number of players who have emerged as a result of the initiative of a few key teachers up and down the country should give the CA food for thought.)

Fortunately one of his school friends was keen, too: "My best friend at school knew how to play breaks. He had a friend who was a 3-handicap, and most of the information I got was second-hand from this 3-handicapper. Then from being a beginner to being an A-class player, I did that on my own, just knocking around at the club. The first coaching I had was from Michael Heap, who won the Opens in Nigel's era. What he did was tell me to hold the mallet at the top."

Whether as a result of that advice or not, Robert's progress was rapid: "I started playing in August, 1985, and did my first triple peel the following May. I was still on handicap 8 at this time, playing really at scratch. When I beat the club handicapper with a triple, she brought me down to 7.5. After that both Chris Clarke and I came into prominence very quickly from no one ever having heard of us. The kids who came through after that they cut preemptively."

It is now - surprisingly - ten years since he won his first championship. Durham University, Essex University and the six American years followed before, in 1998, he began the dark-suited life of accountancy in the City. No more backpacking across the time zones?

How the nine-to-five life will affect his croquet remains to be seen. Much speculation on this, I suspect, in the croquet world, especially in view of the MacRobertson Shield coming up in New Zealand in 2000. His new domestic base is established in Surbiton so that, he says, he will be able to practise every night after work.

Regular, disciplined practise is essential

The work ethic is strong in Fulford's view of croquet. "I'm sure there was a time for every player when they fell in love with the game for the first time and they were playing every day. I need an hour's play on my own every day, whatever friendly games I might then play. In practice I can have six shots to, say, every one I might play in a game." Later, he adds "You do improve if you play a lot."

And what does he practise? "You should practise whatever you find difficult," he says, but emphasises establishing your own game - the rhythm of the swing, the consistency of all the shots.

Fulford performs one of his trademark peels.
In Robert's case his practice programme includes shooting, two-ball breaks, sextuples, hoop-approaches from long distances and openings. It is an interesting list and goes some way to defining the changes currently enlarging croquet at this level.

When I ask how far he analyses his own play, he says,"What I try to do is only think about what I'm doing in practice sessions. So in practice I'll try to tinker with things if they're not working. For example, I might think, 'I'll concentrate on the pause at the top of the back swing'."

We discuss "the theory of openings", now so important since shooting is consistently good. The 'Super Shot' opening - a new development - and the Duffer tice - a revival - are both high on the list of tactics Robert uses. Both are responses to the likelihood of either player going round from the third or fourth turn, and are as far-removed from the traditional 'standard opening' as the standard opening is from the 1898 start, when the ball was placed in front of hoop one.

The same reasoning pushes the top of the 'A' class to develop the two-ball break and, therefore, hoop-approaches from long distances. In these technical and tactical changes, the rule-book is being rewritten. Whereas it used to be the long-bisquers who would "roll up" to their hoops from long distances for lack of anything better to attempt, it is now the Fulfords, Maughams and Clarkes who may be seen approaching hoop one from the East boundary, not for lack of tactical nous but as part of a new orthodoxy. Such tactics can be as stirring and dramatic as anything that has gone before in the history of the game. For the traditionalist it must also be as surprising as seeing the way in which Khaled Younis or Peter Payne run their hoops from 20 yards in golf croquet.

Fulford's exemplars: Jackson and Wylie

In these ways croquet is opening up for itself new horizons. Robert quotes the example of Bob Jackson of New Zealand, who will play whatever shot he feels he wants to play, without a thought for long-sanctioned traditional tactics. "He did whatever he wanted and made it effective."

It is clear from our conversation that Jackson has been the inspiration for much of Fulford's play, and he recalls as his favourite match the one he played against Jackson in the quarter finals of the New Zealand Opens in 1990:

"Jackson didn't make a single mistake: he did everything he wanted to in all three games. All he did was corner when he shouldn't, so I went round. People don't do that against me any more. Now they shoot. But in that game I just reached a new level and became one of the best in the world, even though Jackson and Hogan were still thought of in that way."

On the theoretical side, Keith Wylie's Advanced Croquet Tactics strongly influences current thinking. Many of the developments now being put into practice were first expounded by Wylie, a croquet thinker for whom Fulford clearly has great admiration. It is Wylie's terminology that is still used.

Gradually I am beginning to see the dimensions of Fulford's view of croquet. It is strongly internationalist - not for nothing is he World Champion - and free of established systems. It puts a high premium on enterprise. Nothing is off-limits. It is based on hard work. For example, he thinks hard about croquet tactics - "probably more than anyone else who's playing", he says. In this he most resembles the chess Grand Masters, who will plan their moves and all the possible responses from the opponent far beyond the opening skirmishes. His technical skill also comes from "all the hours I spent practising. You learn by doing something wrong a few times."

He sums up the effects of these developments by saying that his croquet looks "scruffier" than that of the classical player of old. It will certainly be less predictable, since the approach to winning and losing is also changing.

"I know how the game 'should' be played, but I also think, 'I'm good at that shot, so I'll do it that way'. My generation, if you like, hasn't grown out of the kinds of shots that, say, Nigel Aspinall might have done when he was a teenager.

"I'm probably more concerned about whether I'm playing well or not, to be honest. I'm quite pragmatic about winning or losing. If I play badly and someone beats me I quite often wonder whether they think, 'So you don't need to be that good to beat one of the best players.' And I think, well, I didn't really teach you how good you need to be - which is what I'd rather do.

"In the future, obviously, I'm going to reach a point where I'm not the best player, and I'd be very disappointed if that happened because I got worse rather than that someone had got better than me. It's very important to me that standards in croquet keep going up. It's very bad if a sport stagnates. We need some new blood, but in the meantime I'm going to keep going and try not to get any worse."

Although Fulford does not accept the credit - or should that be 'blame'? - for the technique of swinging the mallet over the ball several times before taking the shot, he defends the practice. He points to two earlier players who approached shooting in the same way - Martin French and William Prichard.

After a certain number of swings over the ball I decide at the top of the
swing that it feels right and that the next swing will be the hit.

"It's good,' he says, "to have a little rehearsal before every shot. My own technique is entirely natural. After a certain number of swings over the ball I decide at the top of the swing that it feels right and that the next swing will be the hit. At that point, I'm ready. For me, with the Irish grip, it seemed a lot easier. Normally, I'll swing around five or more times, but I'm partly stalking the ball as well."

With nothing better in the room than a ballpoint pen to act as a mallet, Robert has difficulty demonstrating his swing for me. However, he believes that you shouldn't 'follow through'. You should "hit through". And, although the orthodox view is that if you wanted to make the perfect croquet player you would chop off the arms at the wrists, he himself is a very wristy player. ("I just break all the rules.") He also strongly believes that in the swing the big muscles - shoulders and thighs - must move first and the hands should come through at the end.

When, I ask, can we see these ideas and beliefs put into practice? Well, in the 1999 season all the top players will have just one thing in mind: selection for the MacRobertson. So all the main contenders for places should be particularly high profile. Robert himself will play as full a season as work will permit, including regional championships such as the Northerns and the West of England. He will also play the Opens, his favourite event. I ask why he likes it so much.

"It's partly to do with the standard of the event. That and the atmosphere make it special. I like playing at Hurlingham on really good lawns." He will also be back at Sonoma in May, for the event that rates, he says, much higher in international esteem than the President's Cup here.

With more and more major international events filling the calendar, I express my concern that Fulford will be seen less on the domestic circuit. He reassures me: "Great Britain is the strongest croquet nation, and I want the best competition. So this is the place to be."

I ask about the President's Cup. This event seems to be losing status. The reason, Robert points out, is partly that, although the term 'Open Championship' is universally understood, 'President's Cup' is a much more ambiguous name, implying no particular standard and lacking international currency. Fulford, in fact, would like to see changes to the President's.

Championing the 14-point game

In his view the 14-point game has much to commend it. He even uses the word "superior" in comparing some aspects of that version with the standard one. He concedes that sextuples would disappear, but -

"As the outplayer in a 14-point game you know your turn is likely to come quite soon. Leaves also become more important and there is less time if peels are required. I'd like to see this form of the game played by the top players. I'd be very happy if the President's Cup could be played as 14-point games. For those players it would have the effect of shortening games."

John Solomon, president of the Croquet Association, presents to Fulford the trophy for his favorite event, the British Opens.
Before we leave the calendar for 1999 Robert mentions the possible GB v The Rest match in October. Barlow balls will be used and the match will be seen as a team-building opportunity. As a Selector he stresses the need for everyone with aspirations to selection to have a go." Even if you don't win a place, you will have really helped the team by pushing everyone else." (The team will fly out on 15 January.)

Robert is concerned that new blood is needed at the top of the game. We mention a few names, including that of the 18-year-old Jacques Fournier of Arizona, but, in general, Robert feels that "croquet education" is now much better than when he started, and standards are rising:

"The number of 10-bisquers who play 4-ball breaks is much higher now. Overall croquet has improved in terms of tactics and overall standards. It's much stronger."

I refer to his own coaching videos, made with a much-admired Australian coach, Kevin Brereton. The first illustrates the point he has just made. Intended for the Australian market primarily, it covers break-making and break-sustaining as main themes. Why Australia? Well, it seems they don't play many handicap games, so they don't have bisques, so they don't make breaks.

The second tape sounds more valuable for the home player. It concerns triples and is aimed at handicaps 4 and 5. In this, unlike the first, Robert is miked up and talks as he plays.

I am increasingly conscious of how much of his time I'm taking, and I must fit in the one question that I have asked all the interviewees so far: If you could change one thing in croquet, what would it be? Robert's is the most direct answer: faster lawns. But it's the old problem: "I know that if you create faster surfaces, you're more likely to kill the lawns."

So if he can't really change that, then what? Experimentation with the 14-point game would come high, but so would starting a new generation of croquet players:

"If the first one or two can be started, a dozen will follow. And they must start early if they're going to get to the top."

I think the reason he sounds so keen on this may go back to those early days at Colchester C.C., as a result of which the World Champion can give me this glimpse of how he feels:

"When I'm on the lawn I'm in my element. I've been to something like 150 different clubs in my life. But once I'm on the croquet lawn it's like I'm at home. That's how much I like croquet. Once I'm on a croquet lawn I'm as comfortable as I can be. I can't really argue that I do it because it's entirely challenging, because one of the things about it is that it's enormously comfortable to me."

It's late when he sets off down the Strand, heading for Waterloo and the train to Surbiton. Croquet is changing radically, but there is more to gain in the changes than to lose. And in Robert Fulford the top of the game at least is in very good hands.

[The preceding article is reprinted by permission of the Croquet Gazette and Neil Williams.]


NEIL WILLIAMS: THE AUTHOR'S SELF PORTRAIT

I first played croquet at University back in the 1950s, but there was a long gap (over 10 years) before I knew that croquet clubs existed and that you could join them. Living on the Cotswolds at the time, I joined the Cheltenham club and learned to play. I also joined the Southport club in my native Lancashire, becoming the Chairman a few years later. When I moved to Manchester in 1968 I also joined the Bowdon club, and eventually became the Secretary. I was by then playing regularly in Tournaments and club competitions.

More importantly, both Southport and Bowdon clubs were in poor shape, with low membership and big problems with the lawns. Together with a very few helpers, I set about reviving both clubs, at a time when there was little outside support and less knowledge of how to rebuild interest in the game. That both clubs are flourishing today really goes back to those days in the 1960s and early 70s. Fortunately the Croquet Association’s own development plans were then beginning, and in later years we had real support from the CA and its development officers.

An important part of this support was the establishment of the North West Federation of Croquet Clubs, of which I was the first Chairman. Around this time, I also played for England and was a member of the Croquet Association Council.

A move to the Lake District in 1974 (for job reasons: I became a Schools’ Inspector in Cumbria) meant an end to much of this work, and a gap of 16 years followed when I was able to play little or no croquet as the nearest club was at least 60 miles away.

However, in 1990 a nearly defunct club in my county (Cumbria) began to show signs of life, and I became its Hon.Sec., chief coach and general publicist. We worked hard to increase membership, and I began to reappear on the tournament circuit. I qualified as a referee (I was already an official handicapper) and took the CA course as a coach.

Gradually, the little club did grow and prosper. In particular, we vastly improved the membership, the quality of play and the playing conditions. We undertook various novel ways of attracting new members and that innovative streak still shows itself in the club.

However, I moved on the new tasks. In particular, since Crake was the only club in Cumbria, I set about establishing another one. This is in Kendal, now in its second year and prospering. The work has been hard as, once more, I was the only member who could play, so had to teach right through the 1998 season, as well as fighting various battles with bureaucracy.

I was also asked to become Chairman of the North West Federation of Croquet Clubs, now much bigger and more powerful. We have great plans for the development of the game in the vastly increased number of clubs within the North West of England. I am also now a Tournament Manager and an experienced golf croquet referee.

All-in-all I have so far tackled most jobs in croquet - not least writing for the Croquet Gazette. I still play in tournaments, league matches and club competitions. In all these years I have also maintained my membership at Southport and rejoined the Cheltenham club, where I first learned how to play, under the watchful eye of the late, great Edgar Jackson.


 
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