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Beating Better Players

By Pete Trimmer. This article is reproduced from The Croquet Gazette, October 2004, by kind permission of the author.

Pete Trimmer with the Ayres CupPete Trimmer with the Ayres Cup

I hope this article may help a few of you when playing tough matches. It is pitched primarily at scratch/minus players, though other readers may find parts interesting.

First, a summary of why I'm qualified to write on the topic: My four most significant matches so far have been the finals of the British Men's in 2003 and 2004 and the semi-final and final of the British Open this year. I found myself having to play the two 'Gods of the game', Rob Fulford and Reg Bamford, but to the surprise of spectators, managed to give them a run for their money, with 3-0 wins and 2-3 losses to each of them. Given my aggregate of 10-6 in games (which might have been 11-4 if I'd hit a 7-yarder), a reader could naturally mistake me for their equal. At present, I am not. Every good player knows that Rob and Reg are currently in a league above mine, as likely to complete 6 peels in a turn as I am to complete 4.

Given that I am basically equipped with good shooting and a standard triple peel, the simplest theory for my wins is that I've just been lucky. To an extent, it is true - I have been lucky. They have happened to miss a few shots and I've managed to hit a few tricky ones. But never underestimate luck - be ready for it; I have seen many players play a distracted, terrible stroke just after some luck!

The two most significant changes in my game over the last couple of years have been in my improved shooting and my state of mind when playing a tough match. On shooting, I have little to say other than: 1) Wait for your mallet on the back-swing. Under pressure, many players seem to hurry moving their hands forward before the mallet is close to its natural-high point in the back-swing. Trust your body to play the shot. 2) Be lucky. Knowing you could be lucky enough to hit the long shot seems to allow your body to do it more often. Well, the thought seems to help me, anyway.

Live with Your Limitations

The Author Assessing the SituationThe Author Assessing the Situation

Prior to my win last year, my record against Rob had been 0-15. I was fine against other players but the wheels just seemed to come off and I had started to develop a mental block when playing Rob. In a couple of matches I had reached a potentially winning position before throwing it away, and have seen other players break down in similar positions.

I believe the key to overcoming such blocks is to break the task down into manageable chunks. Entering a best-of-five match, trying to visualise winning 3 of the games is likely to undermine you. Each game stands in its own right, so I try to take one game at a time without thinking about the errors I made to lose the previous game, or wondering how I'm going to win the next two games.

The next step is to bear in mind how easy it is for a moderately good player to beat a great player in a single game. If you can hit one shot at some stage and take a four-ball break round, even without control of the leave you'll be able to get a ropey Old Standard Leave out and give them a 13-yard shot, which is roughly their 50/50 range. If they miss and you take your other ball round to the peg, even without any peeling, they can simply miss their second 13-yard shot to lose. So hitting in only once in a match and playing 4-ball breaks, a player has a 25% chance of beating a great player, so long as they don't break down. The pressure is really on the top player - they don't want to lose to a scratch! With that knowledge in the back of my mind, I know it's OK to win; then it's just a question of likelihood.

The Matter in Hand

Rob Fulford TrundlingRob Fulford Trundling

Focus on one shot at a time. Many times that I've broken down, it has been because I'm thinking about the next shot I'm about to play or what leave to have at the end of a turn. When you need to think, stop playing. When you have decided what to attempt, then play it whole-heartedly. Trying to assess a player's potential, many go by what his/her swing looks like or by how close together their feet are. I have known players with an elegant style who rarely win and others with a seemingly awkward style (such as William Ormerod) who have made it to the top, so I now prefer to assess players by how they respond to something going wrong. Those that are ready to stop and think, re-planning if necessary, will tend to go far.

A couple of years ago, I had trouble with the pace of approach shots from the side of a hoop. I knew that if I hit too hard, the ball would skate across the face of the hoop, and too softly, I'd never get in front. So I found myself battling to stay on the tight-rope between the two disaster scenarios - and it was all the worse if I felt under pressure. The right approach is to first decide where you are going to aim to land, given your starting distance from the hoop, and then simply play the shot to try to stop your ball there; trust your body to play the stroke.

It sounds trivially simple, and it is. I believe other people have similar problems with take-offs to balls on a boundary; worrying about going off the lawn or not getting within range - these thoughts make you tense. Instead, decide where to try to stop (e.g. 2 yards short of the ball) and then aim to land on that spot. Don't be suckered into thinking it would be nice to be a little closer than that as you play it - pick the right spot to aim for first.

Stretch Yourself in Practice

On the subject of TPs, my first advice is, perhaps, wacky: If you've managed a few TPs but can't get very consistent with them, try practising them with a different grip. I play with a standard grip but I once spent a few hours trying to do a TP with left- and right-handed Solomon grip, Irish grip and left-handed standard (which was the most difficult of all for me). Since then, a TP with my usual grip has seemed much easier. The process got me to think much harder about what I was trying to achieve with each stroke, the importance of controlled hoops and which the most important ball was in each croquet stroke, along with the forced realisation of how easy a standard TP is. It also made me concentrate very hard throughout a turn. (It also then made me notice things about other people's styles, such as how players will often switch to a standard grip for rolls.)

Lining Up the Roger PeelLining Up the Rover Peel

My next piece of TP improvement advice is to watch really good players play TPs and try to predict where they'll send the balls before each stroke. I expect many minus players will ignore this: "I've read Wylie, seen lots of TPs and know what I'm trying to do." I reckon most players think too vaguely when they are playing. After making Hoop 4, they rush toward Corner 3 and put the ball to Hoop 6 whilst getting a rush on partner. What if partner is still in the hoop, only half-peeled? They do the same, then doing the rush peel. (Is that what you do?) And it's all fine, usually.

To me, having broken down so often and having studied the likes of Fulford and Clarke easing their TPs round, now there's a difference in the Hoop 6 pioneer positions depending on whether the 4-back peel has completed after 3. If it has, and is rushable, I aim to put the pioneer between 6 and the peg (and slightly west), as I'll be going to that before making 6 off partner. If not, I aim to put the ball a couple of feet east of 6, in case I don't get a rush on partner (behind 4-back) after hoop 5. It's 4-yards difference in this case, and in many others it will only be a couple of yards difference, but the differences add up a lot when you're trying to become a consistent triple-peeler. Playing 'Predict Rob' is a good method of bringing Wylie's book to life.

Don't Talk Yourself Out of It

Delayed TPs are currently at the limit of what I can reasonably consistently achieve, so I will conclude by saying that thinking of it as a 'Delayed TP!!' makes it sound difficult. It would be like trying to climb Mount Everest, where every step of the way, you tell yourself, "this is the most difficult thing I could attempt; I'm probably not going to manage it." It is an unnecessary mental mill-stone and is liable to distract you from concentrating on each stroke in turn. These days, I prefer to approach delayed TPs thinking "I'm going to take this break round and hopefully have a go at some peels, as though I'm doing a delayed TP." And it often seems to finish - but if not, at least they have a final 17-yard shot to hit rather than a 2-yarder due to breaking down.