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Where did we go wrong?

One of the dangers of a blog like this one is that there is a risk of sounding rather smug and a bit of a know-all when throwing out advice about how to perform under pressure or manage a game.  So, in the interests of fairness and honesty, I propose sharing with you a bad experience from last week.  In the card reproduced below my team is the one on the left.  That’s right, 7-21.

Horror Story

Before that game we were top of the league, but this match was against the team who were in second place.  They had a game in hand, too, so a win for us would have been really useful in stretching our two-point lead.

As you can see, that win was never likely.  So what went wrong, exactly?  Let’s look at the card and dredge up some painful memories.

The first end was not good for us.  The opposition front end rolled four bowls in really close, and it was as well for us that their excellent skip couldn’t find a way to add to the tally.  Of course, I tried to get in, but failed.  This posed a classic dilemma right from the off: the draw was difficult because of a couple of bowls sticking out from the pack, and I seriously thought of having a run at the head, just to disrupt things.  But – rightly or wrongly – over recent years I have tried to stick to the draw on early ends, simply to ensure that I get that drawing weight fixed in my mind, and my arm. Playing heavy early on tends to disrupt your feel for the pace of the green.  However, should I have stuck with this safety-first approach or recognised that serious conditions required serious measures?  I’m not expecting you to come up with the answer, by the way, but just illustrating a typical dilemma for a skip.

Whatever, I guessed wrong, but in truth I wasn’t too worried.  As I joked with our lead as we crossed on the next end, “If you’re going to lose a five, do it on the first end, not the last!”  That is good advice in general, and we did in fact then get a two, the only time we scored more than a single.  I remember once watching a Scotland vs England match in Perth, and seeing the great Alex Marshall bowl two miserably short bowls on the first end of a fours match, to lose a six.  His rink then won the next two ends by three shots each end, so that after three ends they were level.  That example has always stayed with me, and I do think it’s useful to see even the loss of a six as merely two threes – manageable, even if not desirable.

As you can see from the card, the scores then bobbed along quite normally, and after eight ends the deficit was still exactly five. But equally it was starting to look as if we needed shots.  On the ninth end we were doing well until the opposing second put a shot in just to the left of the jack, on the (right-hander’s) backhand side.  I tried (and failed) twice to beat it, but for the final bowl gave in to frustration and played a clever shot up the forehand side, aiming to drift across through a gap and remove the shot bowl.

It almost worked!  Unfortunately, in my anxiety I pushed it too hard, and instead of direct contact my bowl skimmed the jack on the way through, sending the jack in the other direction, where the opponents had three bowls.  So what might have been one shot lost, and 5-11, suddenly became 5-13.  Silly!

Again we got just one shot in reply – you can just see how accurate and testing the opponents were, always ensuring that we were having to work hard even for a single shot.  And of course, when you are that accurate, what happens is that any movement of the jack often produces a few bonus shots.  That is what came about on end 12, where my last bowl needed to have a bit of pace to go around a short bowl, but finished hitting that bowl, which went forward and pushed the jack back to lose us four.

Even on the last end, with the result a foregone conclusion, we were lying four shots after dislodging the jack, but the opposing skip drew the shot with her last bowl to win the end.  It was a convincing and thoroughly deserved win.

Notice that I say “her” last bowl.  In fact, the team comprised three ladies, whereas our team had two men.  I stress this to point out to new bowlers that men and women can have really good games on a pretty equal basis at club level.  Indoors, it seems to me that women can capitalise better on their (general) reliance on the draw shot; errors of playing over-weight are magnified on the indoor carpet, and the best women can make male opponents look lumbering, rather like diminutive wingers in football dumping clumsy defenders on their backsides.

But whatever the general truth of such observations, the point today is that that game was won by greater accuracy throughout the team, together with some poor decision-making on my own part in terms of advice to others and especially what I did myself.  In truth, the result would likely have been the same even without those errors, as we were down on all the ends in question, but the margin, and the deflation of mood, needn’t have been as bad.

Thanks for helping me through what the French call an “auto-critique”.  I hope it’s as helpful to you as it is to myself!




Don’t be Greedy

Hi – it’s been a long time since my last post, but with a new outdoor bowls season looming (whatever the current dismal weather might suggest) it seems a good time to take up the threads again.  Remember, this loose series of comments and observations about bowls is not supposed to be coaching, or detailed instructions about the sport, but simply a few hints about getting the best results – both in terms of personal satisfaction and match scores.

One other reminder: the notes are tilted towards helping new – or newish – bowlers.  However, since this game can, on a bad day, reduce any of us to a frustrated sense of being a beginner, I rather think that any bowler could get some benefit, even if only in having their own ideas and experience confirmed.

So where to start, this year?  Maybe indoors, with a game I watched the other day.  Yet the subject of my advice today would apply to any match, indoors or outside.

I say I watched the game, but actually I came into it on the penultimate end, and in truth that was just as well – the pace of play was so slow that I’d never have managed to watch the whole thing.  This pairs match managed just 11 ends in two hours, whereas at our club the normal duration would be 16 ends, and 15 minimum.  Oh my!  So I suppose one point I might add here is: get on with it!

However, to the main issue.  When I arrived at rinkside, ready to play my own game on this rink, the lead player of Team A was involved in a lengthy and tedious debate, giving his skip all sorts of advice and options for the last bowl of the end.  Team A were leading 7-5 on the board, and holding five shots on this end.  So they had a potential lead of seven with one end to go.

“Come in here!”, the lead finally shouted, with a flourishing gesture.  The skip duly followed the instruction with a fine backhand – the trouble was, it was too fine a backhand, connecting full-on with the jack and trailing it through to an opposition bowl, so that Team B were gifted a shot, which put them at 6-7 on the board.  You’ve probably guessed already what then happened.  Team B won the last end by two shots, and took the match.

As we all know, in any sport, or perhaps in any either-or decision in life, hindsight is always 20/20; it’s easy to criticise when the outcome is known.  But in this case, the issue was simply one of game management.  The match had clearly been very tight (12 shots on the first nine ends). With a lead of seven on offer, there was no point in taking any risk at all.  Even advising the skip to not play the bowl, taking the five shots, would have made perfect sense.  This was a knock-out match, not one where shots difference might count later on, so why be greedy?

Obviously each situation is different.  Had there been no danger whatsoever, maybe with two or three yards of clear green to draw to a cluster of bowls, the call might have been justified.  But the very nature of the agonising and doubt suggested from the start that there were pitfalls waiting.  In that case, and in that situation, it wasn’t worth the risk.  In earlier posts I’ve mentioned the risk-reward calculation that underpins so much of the tactics in bowls. The game is hard enough without scoring any own goals!


Six Education

I was once struck by reading about an England cricketer (Andrew Strauss, I think, but it’s not vital) who was so intent on improving his game that he would write a diary about each innings and note things he could do, or should have done, better.  I realise that not everyone is that interested in improvement, but it remains true, in my view, that every single game of bowls will provide some kind of lesson for future situations. It so happens that a couple of recent matches have provided some good examples, and this post sets out to show what we can learn.  As you will see, the common factor is the scoring of six shots, but beyond that there isn’t much of a pattern so we might as well look at these items in chronological order.

The first occurred in the final of a pairs competition between Christmas and New Year.  My position in the final, it should be said, was largely down to my partner Clive, though in fairness I had a good enough day.  We came through a tough qualifying group, conceding only seven shots in three games of eight ends, and then won the semi-final very easily.  After winning the first two ends of the final to go 3-0 ahead all looked to be plain sailing, until the opponents played a really good end to which we had no answer: being four down was not a cause for alarm until it became five and then, after the last bowl of the end, six.  3-6: uh oh!

It was at that point that the opposing lead sent the jack out at the side of the rink, turned to me and said “I do that a lot”. Having just lost a heap of shots on a full length I decided to move the mat up several yards, and felt relieved as he sent the first couple of bowls sailing past the jack.  For once I was able to put mine in the area (to tell the truth I’m not that happy on short ends indoors) and we won not only that end but all the others – naturally, all with the mat several yards up the green.

So the point which comes out of this to reinforce something I wrote in a previous post is the importance of being able to handle the jack – putting it pretty well where you or your skip want it to be, and certainly not handing it over to the opposition.  If my opponent last week had put up a testing jack and then put a bowl close it would have kept the pressure on – as it was, that six was the only score they got, and we won 17-6.  It was a costly mistake in more than sense, as the prize for the winners was £50 each!

Actually, in the semi-final there was another interesting six.  We were 4-0 ahead after three ends, and lying one shot.  I saw that the opposition bowl in second position was in fact the only one of theirs that was close, and advised Clive to come in a fraction over drawing weight with the possibility of turning that bowl out.  I told him it was worth five, but he did it so perfectly that his own bowl fell in for six.  That made it 10-0 after four ends of the eight, and basically that was that.  It’s always important to be on the lookout for such situations, but of course it needs an expert touch to be able to deliver it without going wild and maybe spoiling things.

This week league matches started, and in one of these our triples team started really well on the first end, four up as I went to bowl (as skip this time).  I put two more in, but then, as there were no practice ends, decided that it might be better to try the other hand, just to see how it was running.  I bowled long and failed to add to the six – and that almost came back to haunt me, as the opposing team played really, really well all afternoon, and came back so that with two ends remaining we were tied on 11-11, then we needed a measure on the last to ensure that we had won 13-11 instead of it being a 12-12 draw.

If you think I sounded a bit pleased with myself in the account of the pairs tournament the moral here is clearly a story told against myself, as I had been too complacent on the first end, giving up the chance of a pretty regulation shot for seven in favour of a rather indulgent loose shot.  I’ve already made my New Year resolution that I’ll never again reduce my chances of adding another shot when it’s there for the taking.

The sixes seem to be coming like maximums in a T20 cricket match – I have to stress that these are exceptional scores, and that our indoor club has very competitive and often low-scoring matches.  But by coincidence, the day after the above incident we started another triples match and lost a six on the first end.  The end was disrupted by the late arrival of one of the opposing team, but let’s not make excuses – the point is, we lost a six.

At this point, there were two model examples.  The first was the previous day’s experience of a comeback.  The second was the memory of an international match I once saw between Scotland and England, where the great Alex Marshall went to the mat as skip with his rink four down on the first end, and then bowled two short bowls to give England a six.  His body language was impenetrable, his reaction inscrutable – but his rink won the next two ends by three on each, so that after three ends it was all square with another 18 ends to go.  As people often say, if you are going to lose a count, do it early, and certainly on the first end rather than the last!

Yesterday was a case in point, as we clambered back, going from 2-8 to 14-8 in the space of  five ends, and even though we then lost four singles it was enough to get the win.  Again, my point in mentioning this is just to show that there’s no need to panic or get downhearted because of a bad start.  I always find it helpful to think in terms of  the run-rate in cricket, working out a lead or deficit in relation to the number of ends left.  Dropping an early six isn’t too much of a problem with 14 ends to go – and if you pretend that it was two threes instead of a six it sounds even less daunting.

Beyond the figure six these examples don’t have a lot in common.  One of them more or less clinched a win; another could have caused an upset but was spoiled by poor use of the jack; in other games one count of six on the first end did enough damage to spoil a team’s chance of a win, while another was overhauled by steady play throughout.  But putting them all together has hopefully provided some hints and practical examples of different aspects of the game, as mentioned in general terms elsewhere in the blog.

How Do I Say This?…

In the previous post I illustrated some of the things that bowlers do although they really shouldn’t, and offered some advice on good practice.  Today we can switch attention to what is said in the context of a team game, remembering that the instructions or advice are passing between two people who are at least 25 metres apart.

It’s much easier, I think, to pick up the skill of actually bowling a wood than it is to be confident in passing on instructions.  At least, it is early on.  But when you start playing the game seriously, then sooner rather than later you’ll be in a position where some advice is sought or needed, and it’s as well to have some idea of what’s required.  So here are some very general tips, which I hope don’t show too much of my own preferences or character.

The first thing, I’d suggest, is that you shouldn’t give too much information.  There is a principle involved in marking singles games where the marker is supposed to respond factually to any questions asked – no embroidery or extension, just “Yes”, “No”, “Two shots”, “Eighteen inches”, or whatever the answer is.  And in a sense that principle should guide any descriptions you give to your playing partner as she stands on the mat trying to work out which bowl is which.  You’ll see some players walking in front of the jack, pointing hurriedly to all the bowls and shouting “ours” or “against” for each one.  That isn’t what the person bowling needs to know.  What’s needed is a clear idea of the best route, and which bowls are which (if the colours don’t make that obvious already).  And if the question is: “Whose is that front bowl on the right?” then try to limit your answer to what is needed, unless there is some glaring issue.

In the same way, it’s best not to go in for offering too many options – and in this context two is often too many!  Certainly you may hear a skip invite team mates to play “Either hand”; but that just means that they are free to choose their preferred side, and it’s also true that earlier in the end there is more likelihood that both sides will be valid choices.  When you yourself are advising on what shot to play, try to avoid getting too complicated in the alternatives.  Even a simple “Either do this… or that” is liable to leave the person who is bowling vaguely unsure, and if three possibilities are offered the chances are that he will play some kind of mixture of all three, with dreadful results.

In an earlier post I said how important it was in your own bowling to have a clear visual image of what you want to achieve, and the path of the bowl. When giving advice on shots you simply need to remember how important and helpful that is.   Merely waving an arm down the forehand or backhand side can be fine when someone is bowling very well and needs no particular advice; but if something specific is needed, either because you can see some feature or danger, or because you have been particularly asked for advice, try to indicate the end result, and ideally the speed of bowl required.

I’ve already mentioned that there is no need to obsess about opposition bowls, or to go round indicating all those for and against.  Another point to remember is that there is no harm in losing one shot if it would be too risky to try to win the end.  The way I see it, the chances of a whitewash (with the opposition failing to score in the match) are somewhere between slim and zero; it follows that they are bound to be scoring on a few ends at least; and as long as the situation isn’t desperate, don’t regard the loss of one shot as any great defeat.  It happens.

One final point about advice given.  Players may ask you how far short or through (ie, past the jack) their previous bowl was.  Distances here are normally expressed in terms of length past or short of the jack, not actual distance.  For example, anyone can see that a bowl is a yard wide, but it may only be a couple of inches short of the jack, and that’s what they want to know, so as to adjust the weight next time – the line on that next bowl will, of course, be perfect!

By the same token, if a bowl comes in hard and would be have gone two metres through had it not stopped on another bowl, the player needs to know that it was two yards heavy rather more than knowing it is now level with the jack.

That position of being level with the jack is known as being “jack high” despite the attempts by lawmakers to call it jack level.  This is one of those peculiar results of international meetings which I mentioned elsewhere, and I just hope that old traditions remain on this one.  This topic of what to say and how to say it leads neatly on to the whole notion of common expressions used by bowlers in particular places, and perhaps it would be good to take a break from our imagined matches to consider some of the phrases you are likely to hear on the green.  The polite ones, anyway…



Etiquette (1)

The word “etiquette” might conjure images of people being very dainty and polite, but in the context of our blog it’s simply a general word to describe the things that players should (and shouldn’t) do and say in the course of a match.

Take, for instance, the start of the game.  You’ll notice that people always shake hands with every other player, exchanging some comment such as “Good game”, “Nice game”, or “Enjoy your game”.  This really is important, and so is the rounding-off at the end of the match.  Apart from the obvious “Well played” or “Thank you”, if it’s a knock-out match and you’ve finished on the losing side it’s a convention to wish the opponents good luck in the next round. This may be hard to make out sometimes as you are saying it through gritted teeth, but it has to be done. Come on, it’s only a game (a saying that is particularly favoured, for some reason, by those who’ve just lost!)

With regard to how to behave during actual play, just remember that possession really is nine tenths of the law in bowls.  More precisely, possession of the mat is the term used to indicate that you’re either in position to bowl or have just done so. In fact, you have possession of the mat once your opponent’s previous bowl has stopped, and at that point you are entitled to be on the mat, unimpeded.  There’s no need to rush – take your own time and play at your own rhythm. But by the same token, once your bowl has come to a stop at the other end you have to vacate the mat area. Don’t be surprised if you’re told to move if you stray up the green or stand admiringly on the mat.

You will sometimes see some players run, jog, or walk extremely fast after their bowl, in order to get to the other end.  (This is possible outdoors and in non-timed matches indoors, but as most indoor stadiums operate on the basis of timed sessions for matches there is usually a rule to ban such expeditions.)  In matches where it is allowed, remember that the rule is still that you mustn’t delay the next bowl, so you really have to arrive at the head no later than your bowl.  Sometimes players are a bit slow and it’s… well, it’s naughty.

Another thing that people sometimes get away with and shouldn’t do, is to ask questions about the outcome of their bowl immediately after it stops.  You really mustn’t do that.  As I explained above, possession has now passed to the other player or team, and any information which you want has to be asked after their next bowl.

Talking about exchanging information, remember that as the thirds and/or skips walk up the green and cross over in the middle of the end, the person who is about to play is the one who is in possession of the mat, and therefore can dictate the speed of the game.  If he wants to get on with it he must be able to do so, and not have to look at a group of opponents discussing possible strategy or bemoaning the dreadful luck they had on the last end. However, if the player due to bowl chooses to hang around and discuss options before heading off towards the mat that’s his prerogative, and the other side just has to wait. (Again, if there’s a time limit on the match you can expect some complaints if there’s any perceived time-wasting here.)

When you’re standing near the head either before or after bowling your own woods, it’s really vital to keep quiet and still when other people are bowling.  It can be incredibly irritating when you are about to bowl and someone decides to shift position for a better view, or to check the scoreboard.  Let me put my hand up and admit that I’ve been told off for moving in this way (the game was just sooo exciting, honest!) but at least I haven’t been a repeat offender.

The Laws make it clear that players who are at the non-bowling end must be behind the jack when someone is bowling (except that it is possible to step in front of the head to show a team member what shot to play). In addition to being behind the jack, if it isn’t one of your team who is bowling you should stay clear of the head as well.

Many of the little “rules” or conventions of bowls are just like those in other sports. For example, one avoids standing in a position where a shadow falls over the jack or right in front of the mat.  This would clearly make life difficult for the person bowling, and is akin to similar conventions in golf.  Another issue concerns the wearing of white shoes when using a white jack: if someone stands too close to the jack it can smudge the perspective from the other end, and the person bowling has every right to (politely) ask the player in question to move to one side. Meanwhile, when standing near the mat it’s important to stay well back behind the person bowling (the Laws stipulate one metre, minimum): it can be very off-putting to be aware of someone near your shoulder, or to catch a glimpse of someone in the corner of your eye just as you are lining up a shot.

These latter points may sound obvious, and they are certainly common sense, but it’s surprising how often they crop up (or would do if we hadn’t learned from previous experience).  One of the main reasons for this blog is to highlight and illustrate such issues so that you don’t have to learn the hard way, with the embarrassment that comes with it.  Most of this post has concerned what happens as players set up to bowl; in the next one I’ll look at some of the things that happen as the end develops.



Don’t let on…

When writing earlier about varying the length of the jack, or the position of the mat (which may be the same thing), I gave some general advice about not letting on to the opposition if they change things in a way you don’t really like.

It seems to me to stand to reason that you won’t want to give the opponents an advantage.  Yet I’ve heard people in our club complain audibly, in a league match,  about the fact that the opponents have shortened the ends.  “Huh, all these short jacks, that’s not a game!”  Well, guess what the opponent will do next time.

It’s not just our club. Indeed, the reason for my inserting this short post into the series is something that happened just last week at an indoor match where I was playing lead.

In truth we should have been beating the opposition quite easily, but we found ourselves struggling because one of the three, usually the skip, was producing one good bowl on each end, scoring one or two each time.  Our lead of 11-4 was gradually whittled away until a loss of three shots made it 11-11 after ten ends of the fifteen.

When we finally regained the jack I knew we had to do something to change things, but also knew our skip wouldn’t want a massive change, as we weren’t playing badly.  So I took the mat up by about a yard and a half, or maybe two at most, and to my relief found that my opposite number immediately lost the line and length with all three bowls.

We won the end, and so I kept the new length.  When we won that next end as well the lady said “It’s your fault, changing the mat like that” and I knew we were on to a good thing.  So we won the next, and the next – at which point (to my amazement) she said: “Now I thought you were a nice man. Can you put that mat back on the T?”

You’ll gather that this match wasn’t exactly county standard.  But you’ll also gather that I was almost tempted to take the mat even further, since she had so clearly revealed she was upset by the change of length.  In the event we were already home and dry, so I kept to the new length which was suiting us so well and we won the last end for a comfortable win.

Now the point of this short story is not to claim that I have any great insight or skill.  I simply want to show how pointless it is to draw attention to the fact that you don’t like a certain length.  Pointless in that it will influence nothing – and may mean you score no more points!