Friday, November 21, 2008

Jolly Olde England: The East Midlands

My first stop on my English tour was the East Midlands Championships in Nottingham.
I arrived in one piece after a daunting day long commute including:
  • 5:30 am departure from Southwest Harbor, ME to the bus station in Bangor, ME
  • 6 hour bus trip to Logan airport in Boston with a layover in Portland, ME
  • Commuting flight to Newark International Airport
  • Red-Eye flight into Birmingham, England with a time change and 4 hours to sleep
  • 2 hour Train to Nottingham in a foreign country with a huge duffel bag
  • Bus to the tennis center which was a short walk from the Nottingham Courts (12 pm)
After a few hours of blurry eyed play with no company but the few local ladies who showed me where I could change and on which court I could play, I finally met my host and tournament director Dr. Ian Vincent. For those of you who do not know, Ian has been a staple of the Croquet Association committees and created and manages the Nottingham Board, the quintessential croquet mailing list. I met a few locals and players warming up, but I spent most of my time playing with Kieth Aiton. Kieth was number four in the world and one of the best Scottish players who was extremely informative and willing to talk about the finer points despite the fact that I would be playing against him in the Solomon Trophy. I managed to beat him 7-0 in golf croquet which he rarely plays and then I got skunked in return 26-0 in the Association game that followed. Kieth did not play the East Midlands, but he did show up to watch and add to the peanut gallery throughout the weekend.
When Ian had finished his tournament preparation and squared away some club business, we left. I had my first meal in a pub and was intrigued with Ian's commitment to bell ringing at a local church that night. While the bells were loud and the precise orchestration of the ringers was interesting I could not help but drift in and out of consciousness during the practice session. When we got to Ian's house I excused myself with a mumble and while it was still light out at 8 pm I passed out for 11 hours.

Nottingham had five very nice courts that were about the same speed as American courts but because they were a clay/dirt base, the hoops were more difficult (at one point, I tried a death roll peel and while I was standing three feet back from the hoop, I had to jump to avoid the rejected ball). The thing that most impressed me with this regional tournament that had more depth than any American tournament I've played in, was the variety of grips and swings. In the USCA one sees a few players with their hands spread apart and a few players using the Irish grip, but most people have hands close together, near the top of the mallet with a standard or Solomon grip. At this one tournament I saw one of the best shooters in the game with an incredibly wristy, off center swing, a top player who hits every shot side saddle, and a new player with a 46 inch mallet and a casting swing that arced about 200 degrees (from straight back to head height in his follow through). All of these methods were employed with brilliance as the players were in the top 200.
I managed to get knocked out of the draw and process in two games against Ian Vincent and Robin Brown, but I rallied and managed to beat Jack "Wicksy" Wicks with two 6th turn triple peels on the way to winning the Plate (consolation) event. In the main event, David Maugham went undefeated and advanced to both finals against Marcus Evans and Robin Brown. David won both games and the tournament with a ridiculous 9-0 record with 8 triple peels! This was my introduction to Mr. Maugham whom I would be playing the next week in Manchester. Can you say intimidation?
One of the great traditions of English croquet encouraged the victor to buy a round of drinks after each game. The club had an ale on tap and several bottles of beer and cider, and even those in the running for the championship partook quite often. A few strategic players brought their own cases of beer or quarts of cider in preparation for the long days of drinking. Each night after play, Dr. Vincent and I went out to a nice pub with good vegetarian food (a pleasant surprise) and shared croquet stories with Martin French and a few other seasoned veterans.
While two of my compatriots, Jim Bast and Jim Butts, were at this tournament, neither were going to the part of Manchester that I was, so I got a ride with David Maugham who was heading home on Sunday. I had arranged to stay with Ron Lloyd and David Bent while in Manchester, and I called them to find out where they were while I was traversing the English countryside. Ron answered quickly and told me that they were flying in Monday, whoops. I now rode into Manchester realizing I had nowhere to stay and no way to meet up with my team...

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