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.