T. F. (Thomas Francis) Dale.

Polo past and present online

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side in our modern English game has practically only
two divisions, two forwards and two backs.



1 68 POLO : PAST AND PRESENT

In first-class tournament polo we have travelled
a very long way from the days when the rest of the
side existed for the sake of No. 2. That player and
No. I are nowadays practically interchangeable, and
either of them hits the ball or rides off the opposing
No. 3 or back as circumstances may require.

An additional obligation is now laid on for-
ward players. They must not involve their side
in the penalties for a foul. In the same way, though
not to the same extent, Nos. 3 and 4 must be inter-
changeable. The tendency is for back to become
the most important position. The modern rules
favour him, and in the clearer perception we now
have that in polo as in war the true defence of our
own position is to attack the adversary, the back
rides nearer to the game than he used to do, and
goes up more and more frequently with the ball.
He is in fact often the leader of the attack on the
goal of the other side. Back will in the course of an
ordinary game have more chances at the ball than
any one else. As the increase of skill in passing
becomes more and more notable, the value of pos-
session of the ball becomes greater, since if you
once lose it you may not be able to regain it.
Thus we can see that when the No. 4 having met
the ball as it went back to the goal, is coming up
into the game at a gallop and hitting well, it would
be the wiser plan for the three men in front to devote
themselves to clearing the way for him.

A little time ago the No. 3 was generally the best
player in the team. Now I think there can be no doubt



TOURNAMENT AND TEAM-PLAY 169

that the most skilful player should go back unless
he is a weak hitter. If the best man in the team is
No. 3 then No. 4 must try to pass the ball to him
and run the chance of losing possession in doing so,
whereas it is plain that the method of attack by
which No. 4 comes up into the game and the others
clear his way, is at once the simplest and most
effective. But while the surest and hardest hitter
should go back, the most trustworthy and loyal
player, the man who plays invariably for his side,
should be at No. 3. Within certain limits his
character is more important than his skill. For he
has to drop back or go forward as the case may
require, in order to strengthen and sometimes relieve
his back or support and encourage the forwards.
Thus we see that in first-class polo the places in a
strict sense are, like Euclid's definitions, only a
theoretical foundation to base our tactics on.

The places at polo then are the foundation of the
modern game. There are, on every side, four men
whose duties are as follows : — No. i, mounted on a
fast and handy pony, is supposed to watch the No. 4
of the opposite side, to clear the way for his own
team by riding off the opposing back, and, while
doing this with energy, not to commit his side to a
foul by unnecessary violence and not to allow himself
to be put offside. But No. i, though he may not
always find it his primary duty to hit the ball, is on
no account to be so intent on worrying the opposing
back as to neglect the favourable opportunities that
will come in his way, not only of hitting the ball



lyo POLO: PAST AND PRESENT

towards, but often through the goal-posts. No. i
should be a sure striker at the goal-posts. He will
have to make up his mind often between conflicting
duties, and decide for himself whether it is more
necessary that he should be clearing the way or
hitting the ball. For this no rules can be laid down,
but if his No. 2 shouts " leave it," he should do so
at once, as the responsibility rests now on No. 2, who
by saying " leave it " has expressed his belief that he
can either make a goal himself, or so improve the
position of the ball with reference to the goal-posts
that a score becomes more likely than it would have
been had No. i gone on striking. Thus to hit or
not to hit, to ride off or not to ride off, is a balance
of probabilities which No. i has to be weighing in
his own mind continually. There is no absolute rule,
since the decision must depend on the relative posi-
tion of the players, on his confidence in his own skill,
and the pace, courage, and handiness of his pony.
Polo is so quick a game, so rapid in all its changes,
that every player has to think for himself. The
point to be considered is what is best for the side.
If all players had equal skill, this point would be
decided absolutely by the position of the players or of
the ball. But the skill of players varies very much,
and it is therefore clearly desirable, as a general prin-
ciple, that the best player in a team should have
possession of the ball whenever possible. Thus, if
No. I is a sure and ready striker, it is better for him
to take his opportunities, but if No. 2 is the better
man, then probably it would be wiser to leave the ball



TOURNAMENT AND TEAM-PLAY 171

and to ride off the man in front. A man who can ride
off effectively is in reahty less common than an
average hitter, since riding off demands a combina-
tion of courage, horsemanship, and handy ponies not
found every day. In attack No. i may have many
chances, in defence the ball is going away from him ;
but a clever No. i can now shadow the opposite back
most effectively and prevent many a successful back-
hander, or hinder his opposing No. 4 from placing or
meeting the ball.

No. 2 is a player whose actions in the game
must be governed by his knowledge of his pony*s
capacities. But his chief value, generally speaking,
is in attack. When the goal is open to him and
he has possession of the ball, he should make his
way to the goal as fast as possible. That is not
always as fast as the pony can go, but as hard as he
can gallop without letting his pony out of his hand.
No. 2 wants fast ponies because he needs to be able
to go faster than the other players when his pony is
actually, perhaps, at not more than three-quarter
speed. If the pony is well in hand he will be able to
regain control of the ball if it begins to bump and
twist. It may be laid down that no man who has
not perfect control of his pony can have control of
the ball. Horsemanship, knowledge of pace, and a
delicate touch on the pony's mouth have a great deal
to do with control of the ball. Mere hard, wild
hitting will not do his side much good. There are
two points which No. 2 has to keep before him
always : first, Can I take the responsibility of asking



172 POLO : PAST AND PRESENT

No. I to " leave it " for me ? or second, Would it be
better for me to ride on to the No. 3 or No. 4 and
leave my No. i or No. 3 to go on with the ball ?
If he is a horseman and has control of the ball,*
No. 2's great quality is dash. It is very pretty to see
a first-rate No. 2, e.g. Mr. G. A. Miller, pick the ball
up at a gallop or literally snatch it out of a scrimmage,
galloping hard all the time, and reaching away clear of
the game with the ball flying in front of him, now
hitting now steadying, and at last with one neat turn
of the wrist " readying " the ball for the final stroke
that shall send it through the posts.

The same quality that is dash in attack is quick-
ness in defence. There is plenty then for No. 2 to do.
He must be ready to turn at once if No. 3 serves the
ball up to him, and to pounce on it and go away, or
he must be equally keen to stop the No. 3 of the
opposite side from serving the ball to his forwards.
No. 2 is never off the strain. One of the secrets
of his usefulness is a close unfailing attention to the
game in all its phases, and a knowledge of the
position of the ball and the whereabouts of the goal-
posts relatively to his own position. First-rate No. 2
players can never be very common. Good ponies,
fine horsemanship, and unremitting attention to the
business in hand, are not always, perhaps not often,
combined in the same man.

No. 3 is a player who should combine the greatest
knowledge of the game and its tactics with skill that
can be relied upon. He may be called upon to take
the place of the back and act on the defensive when



TOURNAMENT AND TEAM-PLAY 173

that player goes up into the game. If the attack led
by No. 4 fails, there is a critical moment for No. 3,
for, if he fails to reach the ball, his opponents may
sweep down on his undefended goal. No. 3 must
be accurate and ready at backhanders on near- and
ofF-sides. At other times he must be ready, as Captain
Neil Haig puts it, to feed his forwards, keeping the
ball up to them and so placing it that his No. 2 shall
have a chance to gallop away with it. His ponies
must be handy, turning and twisting readily, and the
position of No. 3 is such that he will not often have
to gallop far in one direction. Assuming, as we may
do, that'in a tournament No. 3 is a player of experi-
ence and sufficient adroitness, his mental qualities of
judgment, loyalty, and unselfishness are the most
important qualifications for the place. He is often
the captain, and not seldom the trainer of the team.
He will not, perhaps, have as much applause as his
fellows, but he will, if efficient, never find himself left
out when first-class polo is to be played. A first-rate
No. 3 can almost carry a moderate team to victory
in spite of themselves.

No. 4 is now the most important place in the team.
The rules favour him, his men depend on him, and the
brunt of a hard match often rests on him. It is of
all things necessary to the moral force of a team that
they should have confidence in their No. 4. Directly
the forwards distrust the back, as soon as they find
he is allowing the ball to go past him, they are sure
to go to pieces. Many a match has been won because
the back has kept his goal like a rock, while the



174 POLO: PAST AND PRESENT

opposite side have worn out their strength and
splintered their courage in attack. Then at last
when the tired adversaries lose heart, and their com-
bination breaks, No. 4 triumphantly turns defence
into attack, and goal after goal is scored up to his
side. So have we seen many a game won after the
score had been adverse for forty minutes. The
peculiar mixture of temper, accuracy, and quickness
that are the qualities of a back, luckily rather improve
with age, and when long practice at polo has given
him a just confidence in his own skill. Like No. 3
he needs the handiest ponies, and quickness 'in striking
off is most desirable for them.

He should be an adroit horseman, and able to
handle his pony so as to neutrahse the riding off
tactics of No. i, and to put that player offside by a
judicious check of his bridle. In backhanders he
must be perfect, not only those sharp strong clean
blows that send the ball back, but backhanders
delivered with such judgment that he can place the
ball where he wishes.

It is worse than useless, at modern polo, to drive
the ball right back among the enemy ; if they gain
possession, a team clever at passing may never let the
ball go till they have scored. No. 4 must know
when to backhand his ball, and when to turn with it,
and go right up. If he is, as he ought to be, the
surest hitter of his side, and can depend on his
forwards, he will probably go right up into the game,
perhaps through it, and find himself clear with at
least one chance for the goal. If he has a just



TOURNAMENT AND TEAM-PLAY 175

confidence in himself, when his own side are attacking
he should not lie too far back, but sufficiently near
to be able to meet the ball and send it forward to his
own men as often as it comes back. Even in defence
No. 4 should not be too far back, as if the ball fails
to come up to him, the man behind may be able to
hit it past him, and go on in possession to an un-
defended goal. He has often to reckon with lighter
weights and faster ponies than his own, coming at
full stretch before even the sharpest of ponies can
have started. This is the outline of the theory of
places at polo, and we see that it may be resolved
into this, that given the amount of skill that entitles
a man to play at polo in good company at all, No. i
is chosen for his discretion, No. 2 for his dash. No. 3
for his resourcefulness, and No. 4 for self-confidence
— and if the self-confidence is misplaced, then we do
not ask him again. Thus we see that the theory of
polo is that there are four places with special duties
assigned to each.

Yet very seldom in practice are all the four men in
their own places at polo. It would be impossible to
play our modern game unless the theory of places
and their functions had been invented and elaborated.
Nor is a player ever quite independent of his place ;
the duty of falling into it as opportunity offers keeps
the team orderly. There can be no good polo
unless the men have first learned to make keeping
their places an object. This is true, no doubt, but
the object of obedience to such rules as those of
keeping your place is to enable you to disregard them



176 POLO: PAST AND PRESENT

at the right moment. Without the places the game
would be a scramble, with every man making his
place his first object the game would be sticky ; and
polo, if it is to hold its own, must always be now, as
it has been at any time these two thousand years, a
game of pace, dash, and resolution. We see, how-
ever, that the practical result of recent changes has
been to increase the importance of the *' back.''
The severer penalties, the better umpiring, and
perhaps the fact that our very best players are
verging on middle life, have all tended to make the
No. 4 the leading man in the team. Another cause
which has led to the same result is the increasing
difficulty of finding effective No. i players, which is
the reason in some degree for the practical inter-
changeability of Nos. I and 2 at the present time.

There are thus two forwards who are interchange-
able, each one doing with all his might whatever his
hand finds to do, wherever he may be placed. No
first-class team would put any one player always in
that place, except in first-class matches, inasmuch as
continual No. i play spoils any pony in time, and
the No. I must be well mounted. Probably the
right place in practice games and second-class matches
is to put the usual No. i at No. 3, and send the
No. 3 to No. I. The forwards are dependent on
the support of No. 3 in attack, and he will be none
the worse for keeping in practical touch with the
duties of forward, while No. i will be steadied and
his ponies benefited by practice at No. 3. v;

This would be equally true of No. 2 and No. 4,




"5



TOURNAMENT AND TEAM-PLAY 177

inasmuch as the former player must often in modern
polo be in No. i 's place. He should t^ placed back
in practice games, and No. 4 sent forward. The
last named is often better for a little sharpening
up. The objection to this latter plan is that a team
should generally play with the same No. 4, so much
depends on the confidence the other players feel in
their " back."

The days have long gone by when back was
chiefly a goalkeeper. He often leads the attack,
and ultimately the success of the side depends on his
skill in placing, and his rapidity and strength in
hitting backhanders. The last point is important,
and it cannot be denied that backs have a tendency
to become slow and to dwell on their strokes, than
which there is no more fatal fault. It is not necessary
to be slow because you are sure. It is the quick
backs like Mr. Buckmaster and Mr. L. Waterbury,
Mr. W. J. Drybrough, Captain Renton, Major-
General Rimington, and Major Maclaren who win
matches for their teams.

There is one point about polo that we must not
forget. This is that in whatever position you are,
the strokes are the same, therefore as far as practice
on the ball is concerned, a man is gaining as much
experience in one place as another. It is not like
putting a bowler on to bat, or even changing a man
from the bow to the stroke side in an eight.

Thus we can see that combination, or as the
Americans put it in their neat way, " team-play," is
a most advisable thing. But it in no way diminishes



178 POLO: PAST AND PRESENT

the value of individual skill. As a matter of fact
the most perfect combination serves a team very little
unless they have one brilliant player among them as
a sort of pivot for the team to turn on, and as a bond
of union. Combination presupposes confidence, and
this is greatly increased if all are sure of the skill of
at least one player.

In several of the teams arranged for our matches
against the American players, the men had com-
bination without confidence, and were defeated
accordingly. The value of confidence is shown by
the extraordinary success of family teams. The
Peats, the Waterburys, the Millers, the Nickalls, the
Gilbeys, the Golds, the Grenfells, the de Las Casas,
all occur to us without a minute's hesitation. The
real secret of their success of course lies not in the
relationship, but in the fact of the opportunities of
practice together, and the Rugby teams are as effective
with one or two brothers in it, because the members
practise together continually, and thoroughly under-
stand each other's play. Thus Rugby has in turn
lost the services of the late Mr. J. Drybrough, of
Captain Gordon Renton, of Mr. Freake, and are still
able to hold their own in first-class polo, because of
the admirable confidence in, and knowledge of, each
other's play that exists.

Combination or team-play is of two kinds. If
the members of a team are fairly equal in point of
skill, the main object is so to pass the ball from one
to another, that it shall be as much as possible in the
possession of the side. If we may put it so, a well-



TOURNAMENT AND TEAM-PLAY 179

disciplined side wins because they allow their adver-
saries to hit the ball so seldom, rather than because
they are better strikers, or it may be even as good.

Combination, however, has its limits, as we can
see. To bring it to perfection it ought to be extended
to the ponies as well as to the men. The men ought
to ride ponies which suit them exactly, and ponies that
are suitable to the places they are required for. But
as a rule men must ride the animals they have.
Only in a regiment or a county club like Rugby is
it possible to pick and choose the ponies in this way.
Perfect combination depends partly on handy ponies,
and strictly speaking a regimental team being under
control and having its ponies in common to a certain
extent, ought to be able to beat any team that could
be put into the field. But they cannot do so because
a team of picked men who have seldom or never
played together before, would beat the finest com-
bination in the world if the former were individually
first-class players. An instance of this was seen in
Dublin in 1895, when the Freebooters, a scratch
team, brought together for the occasion, beat the
most beautifully drilled regimental team that has ever
been seen on a polo ground in England, that of the
13th Hussars, by 13 goals to 2. If we could picture
a team perfect in tactics and combination, but
moderate hitters, and suppose too that all the men
were of equally good form and effective in any
position, so that the team was practically interchange-
able, I would venture to say that a scratch team
which included such players as Mr. Buckmaster, Mr.



i8o POLO: PAST AND PRESENT

Rawlinson, Mr. George Miller, Mr. F. Freake,
would beat them as often as they played together.

It is quite true that combination at polo is a great
matter, but it is by no means everything. Such play
in second-class polo may easily become niggling and
pottering. There will at times be some sparring to
obtain possession of the ball, but polo must in the
long run always be a free, open, hard-hitting, hard-
galloping game. Sooner or later some one must
make a run, and probably the side that has a man
who can make brilliant runs and hit a fair proportion
of goals at the end of them will win in the end.

I look with suspicion in the interests of polo on
all attempts to reduce the element of dash and pace
or chance, and, if any one likes to put it so, the
substitution of the skill of a professional for the dash
of the soldier. I am far from saying that this danger
is near, but I think I see the tendency in the multi-
plication and increase of the severity of penalties.
Even now we must remember that both in India and
America the game is probably faster and freer than
it is with us. But I must not be misunderstood to
undervalue combination ; if you cannot have brilliant
play it is an excellent thing. The majority of
players will always be men of moderate skill, and in
close combination and perfect loyalty to their side is
their best chance of playing good polo. And after
all, perhaps it is not necessary that we should disturb
ourselves. Human nature remains what it was,
write we never so many books, and a man finding
himself on a fast pony, and with a clear ground and



TOURNAMENT AND TEAM-PLAY i8i

fair confidence in his own skill, will contrive to gallop
away with the ball when he sees the chance, nay, will
even sometimes wait and hover a little for opportuni-
ties, or strive to make them if they do not occur.

The general effect then of the changes that are
coming over English polo is to restrain the forward
and stimulate and encourage the back play. While I
am inclined to think that in India and in America
the attack is still stronger than the defence, in
England the reverse of this is the case. For every-
thing in modern tournament polo turns on the
defence. When the defence breaks down the game
is lost. But the best defence of all is to keep the
game near the adversaries' goal. Therefore the
modern back needs to be able to

(i) meet the ball certainly,

(2) to place the ball accurately,

(3) and to be quick.

The besetting failing of No. 4 players, as we have
seen, is that they become slow and dwell on their
strokes. If a steady and sure back has this failing
he must keep farther out of the game than he other-
wise would. It is certainly good tactics for a No. 4
to keep well up with the game if he is quick, and it
is perhaps hardly needful to point out that No. 4
ponies must be sharp to turn and quick to start. It
is far more important that the ponies ridden by No. 4
should have these qualities than that they should
be extraordinarily fast. Also a back must be a
strong hitter. The strong hitters generally make the
best backs. Every first-class back of our time has



1 82 POLO: PAST AND PRESENT

been a tall man with a long reach, except Major
Maclaren. The late Mr. Drybrough, Mr. John
Watson, Captain Marjoribanks, General Rimington,
Mr. Buckmaster will all occur to every reader as
instances of what I say. A weak hitter may succeed
for a time, but he is bound to be beaten in the end
by determined forwards. Weight is a certain
advantage at polo both to the man and the pony, and
of two teams that were fairly equal the heavy one
would be the more likely to win. It is quite true, of
course, that the Rugby team is now a light one.
But I have before pointed out that the circumstances
of the Rugby team, both as to their opportunities for
practice and their choice of ponies, are quite excep-
tional. They only, among polo teams, unite the
width of choice of a civilian with the advantages
generally peculiar to a regiment^ team. They have
always had moreover at least one superlatively good
player, such as Captain Renton, the late Mr. W. J.
Drybrough, and Mr. George Miller.

The ultimate object of polo is to hit the ball
through the posts, and the greater the certainty with
which a player can do this the more value he is to his
side. Again, not merely the control of the ball,
which enables the player to hit through the posts, but
the hitting power by which he makes goals from a
long distance off is most valuable. I have heard it
contended that hard hitting is of no real value at polo,
and this is so far true that if a player cannot hit the
ball effectively when striking hard, he had better not
try for more than he is able. But if other things are



TOURNAMENT AND TEAM-PLAY 183

equal the hard-hitting teams will generally win,
always provided that the control of the ball is not
sacrificed to mere strength and power. Some of the
great players who are noted for always trying to hit
a goal if the posts are open and within distance of a
shot, do not appear to strike hard, but they neverthe-
less make the ball travel far and fast. Such goal-
hitters have been Mr. James Peat, Mr. T. Kennedy,



Online LibraryT. F. (Thomas Francis) DalePolo past and present → online text (page 12 of 33)