Month: November 2015

The Back End(1): the Third

panto horseNew bowlers may be a bit puzzled at first by occasional references to the front end and back end – it all sounds a bit like a pantomime horse.  Very basically, in a standard team of four, the lead and second are the “front end”, and (as we have seen) have the job of setting up a nice solid platform; it follows (in more ways than one) that the third and skip comprise the “back end”.

Although there is no doubt that to be a good back-end player you need quite some experience, let me again stress that there is no hierarchy here, any more than there is between (say) the backs and the forwards in rugby.  As long as everyone knows their job, and just gets on with it, the combined effort works well.

So what about the third, exactly?  The major distinguishing feature is that this player does the measuring.  I mentioned in an early post that measuring is not a group activity, but something to be dealt with by just two people – the opposing thirds, or a nominated substitute.   The other players are best advised to take themselves well away from the head, and (even if they can’t resist being interested spectators) to remain silent.  Of course, there are times when you see your third make what looks like a mistake, perhaps overlooking a bowl or being persuaded by the opposition that a certain bowl is counting when probably it’s not.  But you still shouldn’t intervene at that point – if you know the third well enough, and trust your judgement, by all means have a quiet word at some other point.  I know, I know, it’s irritating to see shots wasted like this, but let’s not have public debates that will serve only to encourage the opposition.

Measuring is an important aspect of the game.  Some people are much better than others at seeing relative distances, and judging which bowls are “in” – builders and joiners are particularly good at it, for some reason! We all improve with experience, but I have literally heard a TV commentator refer to one of the top 10 players in the world as being not much good at judging shots.  I’ll leave the techniques of measuring to a separate post, but for now, let’s just note the convention that it’s the third who does the job.

Deciding on the shots after all the bowls have been bowled is one thing.  But the third also needs to advise the skip of developments during the end, as the skip is playing his or her shots, It will make a huge difference to the skip’s choice of shot as to whether the team has the shot bowl or not, and there’s also a need to know what other bowls are in the area.  Of course, the skip has been standing at the head until it’s her turn to bowl, so for the first of the skip’s bowls there’s probably no need to give any advice.  Only if things change is there really a need to shout, or to point out individual bowls.  The skip usually has a clear idea of what needs to be done – but if he appears in doubt, and asks for advice, you need to be clear and decisive.

As a quick aside, do remember that if you’re playing lead in pairs you’ll also have to carry out several of the functions I’ve described here – partly by helping your partner decide on shots to play and also, most definitely, by doing the measuring.

In terms of actually playing shots, the third has to be able to do everything the skip does.  This means the full range of shots.  It’s especially important to be able to play “runners” (weighted shots) as opposed to the dead draw, because the latter option might be ruled out by the way other bowls have finished.  You also have to be ready to play positional bowls (that is, bowls which finish some distance from the jack, just in case the jack moves that way).  I’ve come across some players who’ve been allowed to play for years using the same hand (either forehand or backhand) yet still get picked to play third or even skip. That is frankly ludicrous.  There’s no way that anyone can play all the shots required if using only half the rink – the game has quite enough difficulties as it is.

Once the end has been completed the thirds agree on the number of shots and communicate this in some way to the skip, for marking the card. Here’s another hint: when the result is just a single shot, but not close enough for an actual measure, it’s best not to say simply “One” or “One shot” when agreeing the result, but to specify “One to us/you”, “or “One red”, etc.   It can happen that two people each assume it is their shot, and once the bowls have been moved there’s no way back.

Methods of indicating the score differ.  Having learned the game north of the Border I naturally adopted the Scottish habit of tapping my shoulder the appropriate number of times to indicate shots to our own side, and tapping a raised thigh to indicate the number scored by the opposition. It’s clear, even at 30 metres, and it’s great for anyone hard of hearing, too. (The same system is used to indicate the position at any point during an end.)  When I came to England, however, I realised that people were looking puzzled at this shoulder-and-thigh stuff: here there is much less uniformity, with all sorts of combinations of fingers, hands or feet, as well as words.  But I do notice that the arm- or leg-tapping has caught on at our club – just don’t do it too enthusiastically, or people will think you are trying out some line-dancing moves.  Yee-ha!

Finally, just to repeat another point from an earlier post, when the skip is at the head only the skip should be instructing other players what shots to play. And when the skip is bowling, only the third (or second/third in triples) is to say anything.   It doesn’t matter how exciting or important the game might be – if everybody starts getting involved you really will have a pantomime.


Second Helping

I earlier wrote that every team role is important, but then also said that the score-keeping has been taken away from the second player in the team, so you may wonder what is special about this position.  It’s a fair point.  In fact, the argument that this is an anonymous sort of position is supported by the way that some clubs and teams have a policy of putting new players in as a second, hidden, as it were, from the responsibilities of leading or measuring and advising.

To be honest, I can see the argument.  And to be even more honest, I think I’d agree with it.  That is, I reckon a new player would be more comfortable watching and then following the lead player, rather than having to deal with the issues of setting the mat, throwing the jack in the right place and being accurate.  But there is a school of thought, articulated for example by the great expert Tony Allcock, which maintains that the beginner should be encouraged simply to do the basic job of drawing to the jack, without the additional variations of shot that a second has to learn.  Let’s just say that I was initially attracted to that idea.  But whatever your views on the topic, we can at least agree that the second’s role is also important.

This, of course, is even more the case in triples, because there the second is acting as second and third.  In other words, the second player here carries out the functions which would belong to the third in a team of four (measuring, and advising the skip on what shots to play). It seems quite clear to me that that would be a step too far for a beginner, at least in a serious (league) game, and in that case I would either put my learner in as lead, or else play the learner as second and agree with all concerned – including the opposition – that it would be my lead who was in charge of measuring and communication.

But let’s not make this too daunting!  What is the second doing?  Well, in a standard team of four the second is there either to reinforce the position set up by the lead, or possibly to shore things up when there are early signs of weakness.  The role will certainly rely a lot on the ability to draw shots, but not just drawing to the jack – there may already be a requirement to reach and cover a particular bowl behind the jack, or to finish on one side of the rink as opposed to the other.  You may be asked to push an opposing bowl out of the way by playing just a little “over” (heavier than) the draw shot.  I have definitely come across cases where the second is asked to fire full-blast at a bowl right on the jack – this was a culture shock when it first happened, I can tell you, but as the standard of competition rises, so these tactics become more obvious. In addition to varying weight like this, the second will definitely be told which hand to play much more than happens for the lead.

The main point to come out of all this, then, is that the second ideally has to be more versatile than the lead.  Not as a player, as such, you understand, but in that role on the day in question.  Again, we can see why some people prefer to have new players performing as leads, but I’m assuming that a sensitive skip would know not to overload a new player who was playing second.

If the lead has not got shots close to the jack it’s very important for the second to do so, with at least one bowl. Otherwise the third will be left with a heap of opposition bowls and much less chance to change things. The second’s job is to calm things down.  And if the lead has done a good job, with your team lying shot, the second has to protect that position by playing for position, as advised by the skip.  It may be that the very last thing the skip wants is another bowl close to the jack – so you have to be aware of this and respond.  I’ll say more about such tactics elsewhere.

For the moment, however, let me just stress again how critical the role of second is in triples. The importance of correcting, defending or developing the position left by the lead is magnified now that each player has three bowls, and with only the skips left to follow.  Decisions about who should play where will depend on ability, experience, temperament and personal compatibility, not to mention the confidence of the players concerned, so there’s no point in trying to lay down general laws, Last year, for example, I played in two triples matches where one of the team was making his league début (very successfully – we won both games), and in each case I wanted the new player to lead because they had three bowls to do what they had spent a lot of time practising – drawing.  A more experienced player, who knew my game, could then play the link role as second/third.  But if we had been in a team of four, with two bowls each, I suspect I’d have advised having the new members playing as second.  It depends…

We’ve looked, almost by accident, at one or two of the things that the third does, but this position has a couple of really special responsibilities, so we definitely need to spend a bit more time on it.  As such, the third will be the subject of the next post.

In the Bin Lid

“You don’t have to nail it, you’re just looking at the bin lid – in the area.”  If you’re new to bowls you are probably wondering what on earth that sentence means.  And maybe if you’ve been playing for decades you are still wondering!  Let me explain.

The words – as quoted – were spoken last night by my friend Clive, a wonderful bowler and inspirational skip who had chosen to sit out our league match and watch as we went down 10-12 in a highly enjoyable but frustrating game.  The reason for the loss?  The opposition lead.  He was like a machine, putting at least two of his three bowls within a foot of the jack time after time.  It was awesome.  Our lead had rather less experience and became quite intimidated – after the two leads had bowled we were usually three shots down.  Only on one end did our lead produce three really good bowls – and not only did we end up scoring a four after briefly lying six shots, but on the next end the opposition’s lead was all over the shop: it was his turn to be ruffled.

Anyway, we lost.  As Clive and I discussed the match on the way home he embroidered on a theme I hear from all the bowlers I talk to on this subject – the lead is vital, and a regular, reliable lead is maybe the most important player in the team.  By “nailing it” Clive was referring to touching the jack and staying close to it.  Remember, there are no points for getting chalk on the bowl.  A heavy bowl that finishes a couple of metres past the jack isn’t really any better for having brushed the jack on the way through (though I’ve heard a lot of skips shout “Oh, bad luck” in a misguided attempt to cheer people up).


Rather, what the skip wants is several bowls grouped close to the jack (we could get more detailed about patterns to aim for or to avoid, but it’s not important here).  The bin lid, for younger readers, is the lid of a dustbin, before they became hinged units on wheelies.  And while we don’t need to be too precise, I guess a circle with a radius of two feet (60 cm) centred on the jack would describe it.  Certainly for newer bowlers if you could get both or all your bowls within a yard (90 cm) it would be very acceptable.  Crucially it gives the other players something to work with or to aim at, and it reduces the pressure.

Getting something “in the area” is vital.  Don’t worry about having to finish up with the closest bowl, necessarily.  The other biggest influence on my bowling over the years, a good friend and serial trophy winner in Aberdeenshire, used always to explain how his game was based on playing for second shot.  Oh, he would try to pick up the maximum number all right, but he knew that it was a rare event.  And of course he was trying to get the shot if possible.  But as long as he was ever only giving away one on the ends he did lose, the winning ends could look after themselves. And boy, did it work as a strategy!

I’ll often find myself asking team mates to “bowl for second” – in fact, I’m usually asking because I can see them rushing a bit and getting too eager to do something dramatic.  What we want is something “in the area” to make sure the opposition doesn’t pick up a big score. If you’re playing lead it’s great to be able to settle the skip’s nerves as she claps her hands and calls out “Good second!”

There’s only one way to become good at this sort of accuracy and it is to practise.  That, if done as a solo exercise, can be a bit boring, but there are ways of making it more interesting. For example, one way of concentrating on the “bin lid” approach is to give yourself a point for finishing within a yard/metre of the jack, and giving the notional opposition a point for anything outside the invisible circle.  Play to 21 – and if you can “win” this game you’re doing ok.

Actually this mimics a good drill I learned when practising putting.  If you spend all your time trying to sink long putts you are, almost by definition, going to miss a lot, and that can just get depressing.  It’s much better to be aiming for the famous bin lid and being assured of a safe second putt, while all the while feeling elated when a couple of the long ones do go in the hole.  It’s the same psychology.

It’s also a good idea to place another set of four bowls fairly randomly in front of the jack.  I’ve seen a lot of people practise relentlessly and look absolute world-beaters by drawing close time after time, but then go to pieces when faced with a match situation where the opponents have the temerity to put bowls close as well.  It’s good to work out ways of playing around obstacles, whether it’s going outside or inside, or even – top skill – using them by getting a little deflection.

Then, as mentioned earlier, you need to practise with the jack and the mat.  Do take time to shift the mat.  Get the feel of different positions on the rink, right up to the minimum length, and then it won’t faze you (so much!) when it happens in a real match.  And for the jack, try taking several on to the green, and then testing yourself to see if you can bowl (say) four, with each one a metre shorter or longer than the previous one.

If you mix all these exercises, and others like them, you’ll become so much more able to adapt to whatever circumstances arise.  And on the basis of all that I’ve said in this post and the previous one you’ll surely by now appreciate that no real bowler would ever say “I’m just the lead”!

(Note:  By coincidence I found the photo of the bin lid on a website devoted to help with putting. There is a book with the same title (Get Down in Two) and I trust that author Thomas Caley will allow me to use this photo in the same spirit of sports tuition.)

Leading the Way

The cricket writer (and former England captain) Michael Atherton recently commented on the England team’s habit of chopping and changing their batting order: “Opening the batting”, he (a former opener) said, “is a specialist position”.  In other words, you may not want to put your best batsmen there, but the ones who play best in that position.

Without wanting to risk making it sound forbidding or difficult, I’d like to make the argument that the lead in bowls is also in a specialist position – arguably more than the other members of the team.  In part this is down to the role of delivering the jack – all the others only have bowls to worry about! – but there are other factors to do with how you actually play your woods.  To an outsider it may seem quite straightforward to have to send your bowls towards the jack with no major obstacle.  It may certainly look easier than the route the skip has to plot with anything up to 17 bowls in play already.  But somehow the emptiness of the green, and the need for accuracy, with little chance of help from other bowls, can be a daunting thing, and it certainly poses a difficulty all of its own.

It feels really good to set your side off with a solid base – and it makes all the other members of the team feel more confident too.  The crucial thing to remember is that even the best bowls may not remain in position because of what happens later in the end.  But that’s part of the game, and all you can do is do your bit.  It certainly teaches you patience, as you watch your two brilliant bowls being scattered in opposite directions by a later delivery: leads have to be quite philosophical about this!

The way I look at it, as a lead you can’t guarantee that your team will win the end, but you can go some way to making it likely they’ll lose it.  That isn’t meant to sound negative.  It’s rather more like the goalkeeper’s position in football (another specialised role) where people don’t always notice the saves you routinely make, but certainly notice any mistake.

So it’s an important role.  Don’t ever belittle your own position by thinking that “I’m just the lead”, or see the team as a hierarchy with players getting better in terms of seniority.  In serious bowls the positions will be picked in terms of ability in the respective roles, and it’s a great compliment when someone says that person X is a brilliant lead.

What you have to do as lead is obviously to get bowls near the jack, but also in such a way that helps later development of the head (the cluster of bowls around the jack). In Scotland the accent allows for a rhyming expression “no lead, no heid”:  if your lead isn’t getting close, you’re allowing the head to be dominated by the other team.

There’s a little bit of pressure involved here. It always seems to me that the only way to deal with this is to concentrate on your own game.  Either think simply in terms of position, giving yourself a little pat on the back (or even pretend points) for accuracy;  or else, you can view it as a game of singles against your opposing lead and just feel happy if you can win each end of this game within a game.   That’s your job done.  Worrying about the team score gets you nowhere; you can’t do anything about that.  Just focus on accuracy.  Draw, draw, draw…

That idea brings us in turn to another point which can affect some quite experienced leads.  If the opponent gets a bowl right on the jack, or very close, there’s a temptation to “chase” it, so as to dislodge that bowl and end up as shot.  But unless you’re very good indeed, or very lucky, you’ll probably miss the target by going for this all-or-nothing attempt, and end up way past the jack, thus wasting a bowl for the team.  Let the later players deal with the situation, and try to make it easier for them by getting close with all your bowls.  (Of course, you may well be able to play just a fraction heavy and “rest” on an opposing bowl or push it out gently, but that’s not the same as what I’ve called chasing the target or trying to do anything dramatic.)

As mentioned in an earlier post, it’s really important to be able to deliver the jack to where the skip wants it, or to take the mat up, and of course, to be able to respond calmly when the opposing lead changes the length.  If you can respond to this by planting a bowl close to the jack it has a serious deflating effect on the opposition.

The other big advantage of playing lead (the upside of having the green pretty empty) is that you can choose your hand. In bowls it really doesn’t do to be a one-sided player (that is, playing only forehand or backhand) but – at a push – a lead might get away with it.  However, even if you have no preference (and again, let me stress, you shouldn’t) it’s always good to pick one hand in each direction and stick to it throughout the game.  Later players may well have a hand blocked off, or be advised to change their hand, but it is relatively rare for the lead to be forced to change. So try to establish early on (either in trial ends, or the first few ends of a match) which hand works best for you on the day, on that green, and stick to it if you can.

I was going to move on at this point to look at the role of the second player, but in view of something that happened in a match later in the day I’d like to add another short post to develop the idea that this is a specialist position.


In the previous posts I concentrated on the start of the game.  I don’t want this blog to be a kind of coaching manual (I’m not qualified), and neither is it a full run-down of the Laws of the game (there are other obvious sources for that information).  As noted at the outset I’m really writing for new or newish bowlers who join a club and suddenly realise there is more to the game than they had imagined.  I guess I’m offering a float in case you find yourself too near the deep end.

New bowlers may take a while to play actual singles matches, but it’s quite likely that they will play lead in a team.  Apart from some special situations, you can take it that in a team of four each player has two bowls, in triples each player has three bowls, and in pairs (as well as singles) each player has four.    I’m going to look at the nature of the team based on a team of four – the other formats are just variations on this.

Until recently, one of the nice things about bowls was the neatness of the system whereby everyone in the team had something to do.   The lead looked after setting the mat and casting the jack; the second kept the scorecard; the third was responsible for measuring when there was any doubt about how many bowls counted for the score; and the skip floated about taking the credit when the others did all the hard work.  No, that last bit’s a joke. The skip has to be able to see how the end is progressing, and advise the others as to what shots to play, or where to place the jack,as well as being able to play any type of shot as necessary.  In other words, there was a good division of labour.

Then, a few years ago, the rule-makers decided to upset this neatness. It’s almost as if the members of an international committee had to be seen to be doing something to justify the expense of travelling around the world to meet and deliberate.  Anyway, for whatever reason, it was decided that it should now be the skip, and not the second player, who looks after the scorecard and scoreboard.  (I know that in another, later twist it is said that the skips can delegate the job, but since they have to agree on this it creates yet another complication.)

The result of this particular rule change, of course, was to take away any special duty from the second.  So if you’re a new player and you end up playing second you probably won’t have to worry about the card, or anything else except for kicking the bowls back after each end.   Perhaps that’s quite enough for you!  The important thing to notice, though, is that the team roles are very important.  For example, any measuring is done by the thirds.  That’s it.  The worst thing is when several people all start crowding round to have a look, and to express an opinion.  Measuring is not an excuse for a committee meeting: when bowls are being measured there are just two people to be involved, the two who are playing third, and everyone else should keep away.  Similarly, when one of your players is about to bowl, there is only one person to offer advice – the skip, or (when the skip is bowling), the third.  In a good team of people working together there may well be quick private discussions about the best option to take, but you can’t have more than one person shouting advice – the whole thing would become a shouting match as opposed to a bowls match.

Club teams at Cup match
Two teams of four – all happy in our roles. Even though we lost!

It might be good to concentrate on each position in the team in separate posts.  But for now, and as an overview, let’s summarise it like this.

The lead’s role is to set up a good basic position for the team.  Nothing fancy – the lead is very rarely required to play any heavy shots. Even if the lead bowls two (or more) super bowls it may well be that they won’t be near the jack at the end of the end, but that’s just part of the game – if you’ve set things up in the first place you’ve done your job.

The role of the second is very important even though it is sometimes seen as a nothingy sort of position (even more so now that the scorecard has been taken away!).  In fact, it’s crucial – either you  are building on the success of the lead and consolidating a position, or else you are rescuing and firming up something which looked a bit loose. Once the first two (often called the “front end”) have played, you want to have at least a couple of bowls in position near the jack so that the “back end” can use them.

The third should now be in a position to play shots, either by accurate drawing or by playing heavier bowls based on how the earlier ones are placed.  And the skip does the same thing with knobs on.   But if the front end has missed everything it’s amazing how quickly a sense of panic can spread through the team.

So you can see already that – as in other sports, or in business, or in government – it’s really important for everyone to work together, knowing what their role is.  As in football or rugby, you can sometimes see a team of goodish players beating a group of star individuals who don’t work together; and the sense of camaraderie and satisfaction that comes from a good combined effort is one of the joys of the game.     In the next posts I’ll look at the things you might want to think about in each position, and the easy mistakes to avoid.