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.


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