When long-bisquers say to me "what's your handicap?"
and I reply "minus one and a half" they often assume that they are not
worthy to discuss croquet with me. I think that's a shame, and would like
to thank the people who have helped me achieve my success and perhaps in
my turn inspire some to work towards greater things. For many this could
be as simple as taking part in a CA tournament. It is by those of us already
involved in the game being inspirational and encouraging that others will
follow, stay a while and go some way to achieving their potential. Recruitment
and retention is the key to survival.
Having first lifted a mallet in July 1991 for fun to show an American colleague something typically English in Cirencester, I was pounced upon by compulsive enthusiast Trevor Howard. He engendered a sense of excitement and shaped my thinking about the game right from the start with intelligent comment about tactics and a rigorous approach to practice. I played in the B league for Cirencester for the remainder of the season.
In May the following year I was off to Budleigh for a weekend of coaching run by David Purdon. David still loves to hear that he taught me everything I know about the game, and, to a greater extent than David admits to himself, that is true. The basic skills of thinking about how to set up and run a break, plan and execute a leave, and analyse the openings and responses, are absolutely the most important aspects of the game. David is one of many coaches in the area who give their time and experience tirelessly and patiently to help others improve their game: well done. Whilst on the subject of coaching I must confess to purchasing my third copy of “Plus One On Time” by Don Gaunt at Christmas. Don is often with me when I have an angled hoop to run: I remember one of his diagrams showing the enormous margin for error if you think about the two extremes and aim between. I also think about Bo Harris at Cheltenham - stroke the ball like threading a needle.
I soon played a weekend tournament at Nailsea and, despite the non-stop rain, discovered the real thrill of the game: tournament play. I played the manager and was assigned an official handicap of 16. Then I was away to Budleigh for the August week. As a new and enthusiastic player the sight of the vast acreage laid for croquet with scores of white clad players was thrilling. I immediately decided that I would retire to Budleigh (I bet that’s got a few people worried).
Of the 30 or so games I played that year I won the majority easily because I had many more bisques than were necessary. I remember my first game against John Toye (a scratch player then) who took the ‘26 with bisques standing’ result in his stride. Instead of calling me a bandit, as many later did, he said that I was going to see my handicap tumble rapidly and should ignore the unkind comments of others to come. I fell back on that many times over the following few years. Despite requests from me and others my handicap was never ‘chopped’. I think the handicap system does not cope adequately with rapid improvers: they (me at one time) do spoil it for others. During that tournament at Budleigh I remember I had a rover peel to do with 5 bisques left and I still failed to peg out! That evening Trevor spent some time explaining how to do a rover peel: “you put red here, blue there, etc.”. The following day I had a similar turn but with fewer bisques to “just get round and peel rover.” I remembered Trevor’s commentary and placed the red exactly in the right place, ran the hoop, lined up the peel and noticed I was playing blue and black! Back to the tactics board I think.
I’m not sure if I really want to thank David Harrison-Wood for supporting my belief that it is perfectly normal to devote every leisure hour (and more) to the game. Those long warm evenings at Budleigh playing one game after another until it was too dark to see the hoops, never mind the balls, were very enjoyable.
By the end of the following year I was bored with handicap tournament play since the number of bisques I had almost invariably meant there was no real contest. I became interested in peeling turns and started to lose games because I was more interested in meeting my own challenge than simply winning the game. This stayed with me until quite recently when Don Gaunt pointed out that, if I were to achieve my next ambition, winning matters more than being clever.
1994 was devoted to the triple peel. It was Dab Wheeler who saw me practising one evening at Cheltenham and showed me the mechanics of a standard triple peel – little did she know then what she was unleashing on the croquet world! I’ve subsequently found a large number of ways of failing to complete one and earned myself a deserved reputation for recklessness. Success finally came in the penultimate game of the season on Cheltenham's Lawn 8 at teatime (I have always been a show off). In a handicap game, I was giving bisques and my opponent had stopped at 4-back. Someone must have suggested this to him as his best chance: “get a clip on 4-back, let him make a mess of trying a triple peel”. The tactic failed and I did my first TPO to gain my most treasured prize: a CA gold merit award.
I learnt a lot in my early years from low handicap players at handicap tournaments but there are fewer and fewer of them in attendance now. From my own perspective, it’s not much fun turning up for a weekend’s play when all that happens is one sits down and pulls out bisques, then takes a long shot with a less than 50% chance of hitting it. There is generally such pressure on lawns that each player gets the same number of games, not the same time on the court.
Through Croquet I have visited Ireland and Switzerland in English representative teams and enjoyed myself enormously, making many friends along the way. In my experience the vast majority of players, including those of scratch and below, are delighted to give a little time to help improve one’s game. Don’t be bashful, ask for some specific advice or help with a particular shot. Whatever you think you most need help with and I’m sure you’ll get the help you require. In conclusion, a big THANK YOU to all those who have helped me along the way and I hope you will all continue to give your help; it is appreciated greatly.