The South of England Championship (2009) was the second event to be held under the "third lift variant" trial [super advanced] laws. Ed Duckworth won the final, beating David Maugham in a repeat of the Bristol weekend, which was the previous event held under the laws. Ed was very pleased with the new laws, and in fact all the players seemed positive about them.
Under these laws, hoop 4 is also a lift hoop, as well as 1-back and 4-back, running any two lift hoops in a turn when your partner ball has not run the first of the two gives a contact, and running all three when your partner ball has not run 4 gives a "free placement", allowing you to lift your ball and place it anywhere on the court. We were also trialling the "restricted opening law", designed to prevent supershot openings, where on the first stroke of the game, the ball has to leave the lawn or hit or pass through a hoop, or hit the peg. The games were definitely more interactive than usual, with the extra lift shots, extra pickups, and more difficult and unusual clip positions all contributing. The lawn surface also made for its share of errors - some hoops were very difficult to approach, in particular hoop 5 on lawn 2. Compton croquet club is taking lawns 1 and 2 out of commission next week to work on them over the winter, and they expect to get them back into good condition for next year or at least the year after. Games did typically take longer than with the standard laws, and the main event had cumulative time limits of 2 3/4, 5 1/4, 7 1/2 hours, which did lead to some time-affected games (although I think only one game was actually won on time).
The basic tactics adopted by most players were to take the first ball to either 5,6, or 1b, and make a diagonal spread leaving the rush for the forward ball. The second break took the same ball to 4b, and then the third break should ideally be a triple peel. The general consensus was to make the first leave at the earliest hoop at which you had control, and the balls the right way round to make the leave. This was more often hoop 6 than hoop 5, and often it was 1b. Partly this was because of the restricted opening law, leading to many corner 2 openings and then first breaks not picking up the ball from corner 4 until hoop 4.
The second break was the most different from the standard patterns in the usual game. Starting a break for 5 or 1b, usually with a ball in corner 4, proved surprisingly difficult and several times players either failed to get going or at least did not keep enough control of the three ball break to get a good leave at 4-back. Starting from hoop 6 was the easiest, but few players actually aimed to get to hoop 6 as a preference.
There were a few players who took their first break to 4b and conceded contact. This was Ed's tactic and it worked well for him, but it was generally agreed that you needed to be shooting well and playing a good shot for this to be a good tactic. Rutger was the only player who deliberately went to 1b and laid for the hoop 1 ball to play, intending to do a sextuple. However, he lost 2-0 to Marcus Evans in the first round and then went home, so it didn't work well for him. I saw David Maugham make a couple of other leaves: at least twice he only had enough control to make an OSL at the end of his second break, and he sometimes had a reverse NSL when for 1b at the end of the first break. This is not so easy to make as you don't make 1b in the turn when you put a ball on it.
There were a couple of other things I expected to see but largely didn't. Often the first break went to 1b with a DSL, and I expected more people to shoot at the ball at the peg from near corner 1. This makes getting the second leave more difficult - certainly more difficult than digging a ball out of corner 4, and the shot is not much longer. Perhaps because few people took this shot, I also didn't see the way to counter it: to go to 5 with an NSL.
Overall, I think this trial has been enough of a success to continue with more tournaments held under these variations next year. I hope that several clubs will try them in their open weekends or championships. Although the changes were intended mainly for the very top level of the game, they seem to work well at the level of this event (minus players) too. However, games do take longer. I would expect the President's Cup to go back to four days next year with these rules.
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