The role of the team captain in sport can differ quite widely from one sport to another. In football, for example, it’s difficult to see what the captain really does apart from wear a special armband and be present at the toss of the coin before the game starts; in cricket, however, even at Test match level there have been cases of players who would not justify their place in the team either for batting or bowling performance, but whose ability to maximise the skills of the rest of the team made it worthwhile playing them.
Bowls is somewhere between these extremes. You could hardly imagine playing someone as skip who couldn’t otherwise make the side; but the amount of direction, instruction, cajoling and encouragement is such that the skip really has to be more than just another player. This is why you sometimes hear people say of So-and-so, “He’s a super player, but not much good as a skip.”
Since this blog is mainly (for the moment) directed at newish bowlers I’ll resist the temptation to talk about what a good skip should or shouldn’t do. Rather, I’ll describe the role in similar terms to how we’ve reviewed the other members of the team, and also outline some crucial points about how those other players need to behave for maximum benefit to the team.
The skip bowls last. That means that there are some difficulties. The most obvious is that there might be lots of bowls in front of the jack, but there are ways to deal with this. Only last night I saw a team on the next rink to ours go into the last end one shot down, and then find themselves another four down after the leads and seconds had bowled. But by playing heavy bowls the skip first of all cleared a bit of a gap, and then, with the very last bowl, came in with another running shot which hit a front bowl, which moved another one, which moved the jack, which … won the match! Ok, so it required some luck as well as skill, but even so, it showed that not all was lost even at four shots down on the last end.
As this story shows, the nice thing about being skip is, of course, the ability to change things. But that can bring its own problems – some skips can become rather superior, showing obvious frustration as team mates fail to deliver, and I’ve also come across a couple of players who shall remain nameless but who clearly asked their thirds to play difficult shots so as to keep the “glory shots” for themselves. Bad news!
A linked problem for the skip is to decide what to do when (as happens) the side is four or five shots down with only one bowl left. Does she play a dramatic heavy shot to scatter the opposition bowls or move the jack; or is it best to play for a draw to cut down the score? Well, of course, no two heads of bowls are the same, and it’s impossible to give a theoretical, one-size-fits-all answer, but on the assumption that you are more likely to be observing this dilemma rather than dealing with it, do watch and learn from seeing how good skips deal with this, and on what grounds. Let me confess that in my early years I wasted a lot of heavy bowls when faced with this situation, and on several occasions I committed the cardinal sin of making a bad situation even worse. How’s that for a hint?
So much for playing shots as skip. In terms of the team dynamic, just remember that you should always do what the skip says. This is not dictatorship, or adulation: it’s simply that the skip is in charge of overall strategy, and has the crucial advantage of standing at the head, with a much better view of what is happening than his team mates on the mat can have. The skip may be asking you to play for position, or even to block the hand of an opponent who favours one particular side. Whatever the skip’s reasons, you don’t argue: you play the shot. I would admit that in a team where everyone knows one another well, some people might query the instruction gently (“You sure? Forehand?”) but once it’s confirmed it would be the death knell to team unity and your reputation if you played the other hand.
Before bowling your wood, you need to know the target – that is, either the jack, or another bowl, or maybe a general area on the green. If it’s the first of those you shouldn’t need a lot of telling, but a good skip will be very explicit about any of the others. If the skip doesn’t make things clear enough, by all means ask (as opposed to objecting) – that’s not a problem at all. Crucially, you also need to know what weight to play – is it a draw (in which case, again nothing much needs to be said), or is it to be a bit heavier, in which case the skip needs to indicate this. Just make sure that before you deliver your bowl you have a clear idea in your mind of what’s wanted, and an ability to visualise the track of the bowl and the end result. It won’t guarantee success, but if the shot doesn’t quite come off a good skip will make some encouraging noises. And even if you miss quite badly just remember (if the skip doesn’t reassure you) that “No one ever bowled a bad bowl on purpose.”