“You don’t have to nail it, you’re just looking at the bin lid – in the area.” If you’re new to bowls you are probably wondering what on earth that sentence means. And maybe if you’ve been playing for decades you are still wondering! Let me explain.
The words – as quoted – were spoken last night by my friend Clive, a wonderful bowler and inspirational skip who had chosen to sit out our league match and watch as we went down 10-12 in a highly enjoyable but frustrating game. The reason for the loss? The opposition lead. He was like a machine, putting at least two of his three bowls within a foot of the jack time after time. It was awesome. Our lead had rather less experience and became quite intimidated – after the two leads had bowled we were usually three shots down. Only on one end did our lead produce three really good bowls – and not only did we end up scoring a four after briefly lying six shots, but on the next end the opposition’s lead was all over the shop: it was his turn to be ruffled.
Anyway, we lost. As Clive and I discussed the match on the way home he embroidered on a theme I hear from all the bowlers I talk to on this subject – the lead is vital, and a regular, reliable lead is maybe the most important player in the team. By “nailing it” Clive was referring to touching the jack and staying close to it. Remember, there are no points for getting chalk on the bowl. A heavy bowl that finishes a couple of metres past the jack isn’t really any better for having brushed the jack on the way through (though I’ve heard a lot of skips shout “Oh, bad luck” in a misguided attempt to cheer people up).
Rather, what the skip wants is several bowls grouped close to the jack (we could get more detailed about patterns to aim for or to avoid, but it’s not important here). The bin lid, for younger readers, is the lid of a dustbin, before they became hinged units on wheelies. And while we don’t need to be too precise, I guess a circle with a radius of two feet (60 cm) centred on the jack would describe it. Certainly for newer bowlers if you could get both or all your bowls within a yard (90 cm) it would be very acceptable. Crucially it gives the other players something to work with or to aim at, and it reduces the pressure.
Getting something “in the area” is vital. Don’t worry about having to finish up with the closest bowl, necessarily. The other biggest influence on my bowling over the years, a good friend and serial trophy winner in Aberdeenshire, used always to explain how his game was based on playing for second shot. Oh, he would try to pick up the maximum number all right, but he knew that it was a rare event. And of course he was trying to get the shot if possible. But as long as he was ever only giving away one on the ends he did lose, the winning ends could look after themselves. And boy, did it work as a strategy!
I’ll often find myself asking team mates to “bowl for second” – in fact, I’m usually asking because I can see them rushing a bit and getting too eager to do something dramatic. What we want is something “in the area” to make sure the opposition doesn’t pick up a big score. If you’re playing lead it’s great to be able to settle the skip’s nerves as she claps her hands and calls out “Good second!”
There’s only one way to become good at this sort of accuracy and it is to practise. That, if done as a solo exercise, can be a bit boring, but there are ways of making it more interesting. For example, one way of concentrating on the “bin lid” approach is to give yourself a point for finishing within a yard/metre of the jack, and giving the notional opposition a point for anything outside the invisible circle. Play to 21 – and if you can “win” this game you’re doing ok.
Actually this mimics a good drill I learned when practising putting. If you spend all your time trying to sink long putts you are, almost by definition, going to miss a lot, and that can just get depressing. It’s much better to be aiming for the famous bin lid and being assured of a safe second putt, while all the while feeling elated when a couple of the long ones do go in the hole. It’s the same psychology.
It’s also a good idea to place another set of four bowls fairly randomly in front of the jack. I’ve seen a lot of people practise relentlessly and look absolute world-beaters by drawing close time after time, but then go to pieces when faced with a match situation where the opponents have the temerity to put bowls close as well. It’s good to work out ways of playing around obstacles, whether it’s going outside or inside, or even – top skill – using them by getting a little deflection.
Then, as mentioned earlier, you need to practise with the jack and the mat. Do take time to shift the mat. Get the feel of different positions on the rink, right up to the minimum length, and then it won’t faze you (so much!) when it happens in a real match. And for the jack, try taking several on to the green, and then testing yourself to see if you can bowl (say) four, with each one a metre shorter or longer than the previous one.
If you mix all these exercises, and others like them, you’ll become so much more able to adapt to whatever circumstances arise. And on the basis of all that I’ve said in this post and the previous one you’ll surely by now appreciate that no real bowler would ever say “I’m just the lead”!
(Note: By coincidence I found the photo of the bin lid on a website devoted to help with putting. There is a book with the same title (Get Down in Two) and I trust that author Thomas Caley will allow me to use this photo in the same spirit of sports tuition.)