Category: bowls


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.


Getting Started

Right, let’s start by talking about the start of the match.   There is a toss of a coin to determine who rolls the jack and the first bowl, but notice that this simply refers to deciding it.  The person who wins the toss can decide to put the other person in to bat, so to speak, by giving the jack away.  You can do this only after tossing the coin, and from then on in during the match the person who wins each end has to have first bowl on the next end.  The only exception – and it is perfectly logical – is if there is an extra end after a tied match.  At this point there is another coin-toss to see who goes first, so once again the rule holds that you can choose to give the jack away immediately after the toss of the coin.

There’s no set rule about who actually calls at the coin-toss.   In some places the skips seem to like doing it, in others the leads just get on with it, but as a rule of thumb it’s done by players in matching positions in the team. That’s just a convention.

Anyway, whenever the jack is delivered it has to travel at least 23 metres from the mat.  This is the purpose of the two markers on each side of the green, showing the 23-metre measurement in each direction.  (These markers will take various forms, depending on the club or green, but they should always be present.)  You almost certainly know that a jack cannot be placed nearer than two metres to the ditch: a “full-length” jack is placed on an imaginary “spot” sometimes called the “T” – indoors, of course, you very often have actual spots on the carpet.

The other point about the 23-metre minimum is that the mat can be taken forward, even as far as the marker that is one third of the way up the green.  But now, of course, you have much less green to play with, as 23 metres from this advanced position will take you to the “full length” spot, and you have only a gap of two metres between the jack and the ditch. If you overshoot with the jack it goes in the ditch, and if it’s short you haven’t gone 23 metres, and either of these errors (or, indeed, throwing the jack off the rink to one side) means the jack has been improperly delivered, and passes to the opposing player or team.  Note that it is just the jack which then goes to the other side.  The original player or team (who won the previous end) still has the first bowl.  It’s easy to forget this, as the natural rhythm of the game is to pick up a bowl after bowling the jack, so it is something to watch out for.

So what happens if the second attempt at casting the jack is wrong as well?  (It happens!)  The answer here is not always known by players, but is quite simple.  The jack is placed on the “T”, that is, two metres from the ditch,and the mat goes back to the original player, who can then place it wherever (s)he likes – full-length, mid-, or very short.  It’s their choice.  People sometimes find this puzzling, but the system here is designed to even things out.  After all, the second player got the jack because of a mistake.  She now makes a mistake, so there has to be some match-up.  Otherwise, the second player might fancy a long jack and just hurl the jack into the ditch, safe in the knowledge that it is going to go “on the spot”. The potential penalty for getting it wrong means that the second player here has to concentrate and show some skill to get the desired result.

So now you’ve rolled the jack.  When you watch it stop you’ll almost certainly have to ask your skip or (in singles) the marker to centre the jack.  There are various ways of doing this.  Coaching books will often show someone standing rigid with arm outstretched in a semaphore-like position.  I personally see no problem with calling out something like “a foot” (or some metric amount), or “a couple of turns” in addition to some clear arm signal to show which way it is.  Just try to avoid tiny little movements with both hands, leaving the person at the other end kneeling down and wondering when on earth these small adjustments are ever going to end!

You may at this point be wondering if I am ever going to end.  So yes, I will, but the next post deliberately runs over some of the issues arising from this overview of the rules.  These issues were the sorts of thing raised by our new bowlers at our discussion groups, so if you too are new to the game I hope you share their interest.

Jack Tactics

In the previous post I ran over the main points about deciding who rolls the jack, and where it should go.  Here are a few extra thoughts on related issues.   For example, I said that you might wish to let the opponent go first.  Why, you may ask, would you do this?  Well, in a really informative book on bowls, Tony Allcock points out that whereas having the jack may be an advantage, having the last bowl of an end is always an advantage.  There is a paradox here, of course, because to get the last bowl normally you have to have lost an end!   But on that very first end you may decide that you would like to have a chance of watching your opponent’s bowl, to have a better idea of the likely swing or bias; or you may simply fancy your chances with that last bowl; or you may know that to hand over the jack will irritate your opponent!  Of course, if you are playing lead you need to check with your skip first.

For a few years about a decade ago the rules allowed players to hand the jack over on any end, and what was found was the best players did it just about every time because they were so confident of being able to do something with the last bowl if they hadn’t already clinched the end.  The natural levelling of the game had thus been lost.  (Think of football or rugby, where the side that scores a goal or try does not take the ensuing kick-off; the advantage goes back to the side which conceded.)  So when you or your side win the end, just be happy with that and get ready to roll the jack at least the minimum length.

Debates about the minimum length don’t often occur, but if the jack is very close to that imaginary 23-metre line the opposition player (or skip in a team) can query it.  At this point we use a long tape to establish the distance.  Habits differ here, and I think very broadly there may be a north-south split in Britain.  That is, in England I have noticed that people like to put the buckle at the end of the tape on the front of the mat and then unroll it until the big round container is close to the jack.  However, when I was taught how to measure in Scotland, they were quite adamant that it should be the other way round, and I think the Scottish way is better.  Why?  Because if you put the end of the tape right in front of the jack and spin the tape out towards the mat, when you get to the mat you have a nice clear line on the tape to match up with the front of the mat; whereas if you arrive at the jack carrying a big, bulky object there is far more chance of disturbing the jack as you try to work out where the various lines are.  People get surprisingly dogmatic about all this, but in the absence of any strict law I would always prefer the safer option.

In tactical and practical terms, control of the jack is often forgotten or overlooked.  Good players will actually practise with the jack, as it’s very important to be able to vary the length with some confidence, or especially when your skip or playing partner advises or instructs a particular length.  I learned to play league bowls with a very demanding skip who would stand at a certain point on the green and put his foot out, wanting the jack just there.  If you were a yard or two out you’d would get a withering look, and the only route to redemption was to put a bowl right on the jack.  That would cheer him up.

That wasn’t good man-management, however, and didn’t make things enjoyable.  I’ve seldom seen anything so rigorous since.  But if the skip says “Bring the mat right up” it’s not very handy if you are left gulping that you don’t like doing that, or making your reluctance obvious to the opposition.  I’ve even heard some players express irritation at such requests, thus letting the opposition know they don’t like short ends – and guess what the opposition will do at the next opportunity!  Sure, we may all prefer a certain length, but most club players are far too content to just play more or less full length all the time. Then one day an opponent decides to take the mat four yards up the green and it feels like foreign territory.

There are various reasons for taking the mat forward, or for playing a very short end.  Notably, it is to change the rhythm of an opponent or team when the score is going badly against you.  Finally, after several difficult ends, and with the opposing lead playing like a dream on full length, you get the jack.  You may not like short ends all that much, but if’s worth trying one just to see the effect: it could be that the opponent likes short ends even less than you do!

Finally, there is a good coaching rule which advises players to watch bowls all the way up the green, until they stop.  Even if they are bad ones.  Especially if they are bad ones!   Well, the same advice applies if you are in charge of the jack.  Some players just lob it up the green and turn their back to pick up a bowl or have a word with someone else.  It really does help to watch the jack and get a better feel for what’s happening on the green.

All that, and we still haven’t bowled an actual bowl!   We still won’t in the next post, but because I’ve referred here to singles games and also teams it may be worth explaining a bit about team positions and roles.

About the Blog

Hello.  You’ve obviously found my bowls blog, so I thought I should add a few notes here about the purpose and nature of the posts.
My name’s Trevor Field, and I’m the club Secretary at Hexham Elvaston Bowling Club in Northumberland.  In 2015 we ran a very successful recruitment drive for new members, and several of the new recruits did so well that they started playing in league matches and other competitions.  We therefore thought it was a good idea to organise a couple of seminars dealing with the written and (almost more important) unwritten rules of the sport, and these sessions turned out to be so interesting and rewarding for all concerned that it seems like a good idea to develop the content for a wider audience.

That audience would (I think) primarily be new or newish bowlers, either indoor our outdoor.  However, after our first group session our club coach commented that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to hold similar sessions for all club members – another reason for this blog.  Whatever your level, then, I hope you will get some interest out of this, but if you are an experienced player you’ll no doubt be familiar a lot of the material already.  Please remember that my main intended audience is made up of new or prospective bowlers.

So what am I going to cover?  Well, I’m not going to go laboriously through the rules (more properly, Laws) of the game, although several of them are worth stressing, particularly for newcomers.  In addition to these comments on the Laws, I’ll make a lot of references to what is generally known as etiquette on the green.   This is not meant to suggest anything fancy or dainty, it’s just a question of what you do and what you don’t.  (You might almost see a parallel example in the way that football teams give the ball back to the opponents after play has stopped for injury – just look at what happens when someone ignores this unwritten convention!)  There are also some comments on the nature of teams, and teamwork.  I’ll also illustrate tactics and terminology, as and when appropriate.  And finally, with any luck, I’ll be able to reply to questions that you send me via the Comments section.

IMAG0406-1So that’s what it’s all about.  At which point, you may be asking: Who is he to set up as an expert?  To which I can only say that my own definition of an expert is that X is an unknown quantity and a spurt is a drip under pressure.  More seriously, I would say that I’ve played for over 25 years, winning club championships at an earlier club in Scotland and now here in Hexham; and playing at county level outdoors in Scotland and indoor here in England. That’s not boasting (I’d say that at the county level I was and still am just a marginal choice, and the majority of my trophies have been runner-up prizes!) but it’s only fair to add a micro-cv to reassure you that I do at least know something about the topic.

Ok, that’s the project explained.  In a day or so I’ll get started on the main writing.