Tag: jack

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.

“Keep away from the jack!”

One of the things which first persuades new bowlers that “there’s more to this game than I thought” is seeing people deliberately bowl so as to finish away from the jack.  Indeed, such bowls can be greeted with enthusiastic applause from team mates.   So, depending on how new you are to the sport yourself, could you think of three reasons for not finishing close to the jack?

Here’s a random piece of text just as a filler while you think!

Well, the first might be that the opposition has several back bowls, with the possibility that if the jack is moved back they will suddenly count and leave you several shots down.  In this case, your aim would be to cover the  back bowls (you’ll hear the expression “mix them up”) and limit any damage if the worst happens.

Sometimes, towards the end of a match, you will see people scattering bowls all over the place.  For example, if you are on the last end and the opponents need six to win, there is no point at all going for six shots yourself.  If you can get a shot or two yourself that’s great, of course, but even if the opposition get the shot you’d be happy with holding second and third – especially if other bowls were placed so as to cover all eventualities.

A linked reason for avoiding the jack would be if you already have a bowl sitting on it, and touching.  If you were to hit that bowl it might well spring the jack out into the open.  But I’m not sure that that would really count as keeping away from the jack – it’s simply a case of not disturbing anything – and a better variant here would be the situation where you have a cluster of bowls around the jack and are already several shots ahead in the match.  You don’t need the extra shots, as such, but what you do need to do is avoid widening the target for the opposition.  So another bowl that finished, say, six inches to the right of the jack would be a bad bowl, however accurate it might appear to a casual observer.  As for what you actually do, that will be decided by what the skip tells you.   And if you are the skip?  Well, that’s what you’re paid for…

Another very obvious way of bowling away from the jack is when you want to bowl a blocker.  Again, this might even have occurred in the example given in the previous paragraph.  There are two types of blocker.  The one that people usually think of is the bowl that finishes rather short of the head, directly on the centre line: this (assuming that the jack is also still on the centre line) should in theory stop the direct hit with a straight firing shot.  It’s also often enough to put doubt in the opponent’s mind, standing as just too much of a visual distraction.  Having said that, it’s also a surprisingly difficult shot to play, and if doesn’t come off it’s rather a waste, as all you have is a horribly short bowl which may even provide a useful sighting aid.   So you need to have a very clear vision of why it is being played, and where it is going to stop.

The second type of blocker is simply a short bowl, finishing on the drawing line precisely so as to spoil an opponent’s normal draw.  If it’s played well it can have the effect of making the opponent push a shot wide, or pull it tight, or even change to the less favoured hand.  Again, this shot is harder than it might sound, and you have to have good tactical reasons.   A variant is when a teammate might ask you to drop a bowl about a metre short, so as to obstruct the opposition’s clear run into the head.

At the opposite extreme, I suppose, is the back bowl, placed just anywhere at the furthest point behind the jack, in case it is shifted with a powerful shot.  You may be assuming that the jack might go in the ditch, with the loss of shots, so the covering bowl simply has to go as close to the ditch as is safe and possible.   The “back bowl” is very important in bowls, and you’ll often hear skips (or thirds) shouting “It’s ok, we’ve got the best back”.

All these variants and ideas are based on the best guess.  The point to remember is that – at any level – the plans don’t always come off.  For instance… Last year I was playing the final of a pairs competition, and after ten ends we were three shots down.  My partner then got us into a handy position where we were holding two as the skips went to bowl.  I added a third shot, and my opposite number played heavy but missed.  The same thing happened twice more, so that we were lying five and he had put three bowls in the ditch.  After due consideration we decided that the only danger was an opposing bowl out at the back, as the next heavy bowl might just send the jack out there.  So I placed my last bowl really nicely near the ditch – and then watched in horror as my opponent changed tack completely and drew his last bowl through an impossible gap to get the shot!  That put them four ahead and we never recovered.

After the event you can look at it and say that adding a sixth shot would have been best as he might have fired and missed again.  But that’s after the event, and you just have to play what you think is the best shot in the circumstances.   However many possible shots you can see, you’re only allowed to play one!

Just Saying…

When you start playing bowls you pick up on a number of expressions which people use during a match.  Some of them are applicable in most sports – “Hard luck!” or “Good shot” being the most obvious – but there are others which are peculiar to bowls.  It’s worth running through these.  As with such earlier topics as things to do and not to do on the green, I’m noting these not as some kind of list to learn, but simply so that as you hear other people using the terms you can decide which ones you want to adopt yourself.  If you’re already an experienced bowler you might be able to add a few variations…

Instructions for Shots

The first type of expression refers to the advice someone might give to the person about to bowl.  It may be, for instance, “lose/keep a yard”: in other words, your previous bowl was a yard too heavy, so take that much off the next one.  This may, of course, be easier said than done, but at least it’s clear.

On the other hand, there may be a requirement to come into the head at more than drawing weight, and perhaps “a yard of running” will be the phrase.  This “yard on” shot is a little heavier, I think, than the one sometimes described as “just over the draw”, but even as I suggest this I am reminded of the way that French dictionaries of synonyms try to pin down words with total accuracy – my favourite was always the definition of love as being something more than infatuation but rather less than passion.  Yes, well, in theory it’s brilliant.

With regard to our bowls shot, the “yard on” shot is quite tricky, because it almost certainly implies that you are aiming to take out another bowl by direct contact. The temptation and danger here (I’ve fallen for it far too often myself) is to play the shot too heavy and waste it, either by sending it several yards past, or by doing other damage to the head. The key here is what is often called controlled weight.  You’ll also hear players telling the bowler to “be positive”: this is also an expression for coming in with a bit of weight – not wild, but certainly heavier than the draw shot, with no risk of leaving the bowl short.

Another shot which finishes past the jack is one that “covers” one or more opposition bowls.  Look at these photos:

20151222_153014 (1)                                                 20151222_153034


The first photo shows the position where both Blue and Brown have one bowl left, in that order. Blue is lying shot, in front of the jack, but it is clear that if Brown were to come in from the bottom of the picture (running right to left) and push the jack through it could result in three or four shots to Brown.  The second photo shows the ideal position for Blue’s last bowl, tucked in somewhere in front of the brown bowls – it can’t guarantee retaining the shot, but it will hugely reduce the risk of losing shots.  This is what is meant by covering the back bowls.

Either as part of this tactic or in more general terms you may be asked to “rest” a bowl – that is, come up to it and stop on it without needing to hit it too far.  Think of it as being a dead draw but to a bowl, not the jack.   (Terminology here can be quite intriguing, and I’ve added a separate note in another post – but only if you’re interested!… ) 

The Jack

The jack itself will sometimes be referred to as the white (even if it is yellow!) or as the kitty.  When a bowl finishes level with the jack it is called “jack high”.  A couple of years ago the law-makers ruled in their wisdom that that expression should indicate being past the jack, and that levelness was to be indicated by a new term, “jack level”.  Well, that may sound logical, but whenever was life (or language) logical?  Everyone has continued to say “jack high” and I suspect/hope they always will.

Another expression here is to “spring” the jack.  This happens when there is a bowl lying in front of the jack, or just to one side, but in contact with it.  If another bowl now hits that shot bowl the jack (thanks to laws of physics I don’t pretend to understand) goes a remarkable distance, especially on indoor surfaces.  So if that shot bowl is one of your own, you usually don’t want to hit it; and even if it’s an opposition bowl you may still need to be careful, depending on where all the others are.

One more term to learn with regard to the jack is the “trail”.  To trail the jack is to play a little over the dead draw weight to hit the jack and run through with it, usually because there are some back bowls waiting.  Of course, this is a very skilful shot, which I suppose is why no one tells a player to trail the jack, but rather says something encouraging like “A wee trail would be good”, or “If you could trail the jack it’d be worth three or four [shots]”.

Regional Terms

If such a shot – or indeed, any shot – doesn’t come off there are some regular shouts of encouragement.  “Hard luck/lines” is obviously one of them, but I always think this should be more sparingly used, since to be regularly told about bad luck might have a depressive effect.  Or is that just me?  I prefer the positive sound of “What an effort!” or “Well played -you’ll get it next time”.  Again, listen out for what you think works, or doesn’t, so that you can use the expressions comfortably yourself, in due course.  Here in Northumberland a lot of people use the exclamation “Hard to bear!”, which I’d not heard before coming here (and which neatly avoids the reference to luck).

Speaking of regional variations, there’s an expression in Scotland – “peels” – to indicate that the scores are level.  As in “Peels!”, when changing the scoreboard to 11-11, or “It was peels going into the last end”.  I never did find out where it came from, as no person or book gave me an answer, but I think I read that it derived in some way from curling, which makes sense.  Anyway, try it in England and people will look rather oddly at you.

Another broad difference I had to learn when coming south was the difference between “Shot in!” (Scotland) and “Last wood” (North of England).  That is, the two expressions mean the same thing, namely that the previous wood, the last one bowled, is now lying shot.

Earlier on I referred to the way that a bowl comes in to rest on another.    Another expression for a bowl which comes in to remove another and sit in its place is a “tap and lie”, but in Scotland it’s known as a “chap and lie”, since the word chap means to knock or hit.

This was not intended as an exhaustive list of expressions, but simply as a guide to the sorts of things you will hear on the green.  There are certainly others – and I’d love to hear them – and of course all sorts of individuals have their quirky expressions.  But on the basis of the above guide I reckon you shouldn’t need to be asking too much for anyone to explain what they mean or expect.





Etiquette (2)

Most newcomers to bowls don’t realise how much of a team game it is. In fact, just as in other team sports you can see examples of a good team of average players beating a collection of individuals who may be better on a one-to-one basis but who just don’t gel as a unit.  Communication is vital in all this, plus the awareness of roles I’ve mentioned before.  Let’s have a look at how this works out in practice.

I’ve already said that only one person in the team should be giving instructions at any one time.  But this  doesn’t mean that everyone has to remain silent.  On the contrary, it’s really exhilarating when you’re in a team that’s encouraging one another after good shots – or even poor ones.  Generally, as the standard of play improves up to county and international level, so the level of noise increases as well.  This noise factor can be quite intimidating, and I’ve often seen a team of quiet, reserved players shrink further and further into their shells as a team of extroverts high-five their way down the rink simply because someone has got a bowl within two feet of the jack.  This was always a problem in the North-east of Scotland, where people are very reserved, especially when we played teams from the Central Belt, where the culture is much more open and noisy – it felt like we were three or four points down before the match had even started.

So by all means join in some applause or encouragement for team mates. What you should never, ever do is applaud a fluke shot by your own team, or a piece of bad luck for the opponents. There’s an element of luck involved in bowls – we all know and accept that – but when one of your team plays a bowl that is hopelessly wide and going nowhere, before it hits another hopeless bowl and deflects in to end up as shot, just please don’t applaud or say “Good shot”.  It’s guaranteed to wind the opposition up in reverse, and it doesn’t show much knowledge of the game.  Treat it more in the way that tennis players acknowledge a lucky net cord, and whether or not you actually apologise, you could say something like “Well, they all count, I suppose”. Most people will then just laugh it off.

The other irritating thing that some people do is to verbalise their hope that things will go wrong for the opposition.  For example, the opposition have one bowl in the head and their skip plays a shot that looks to be too heavy and is coming towards his own bowl.  Clearly if that one is moved you’ll pick up several shots.  Well, of course, this is the very shot your own skip might have played, but don’t whatever you do shout or even mutter “Come on, take it out!”.  Not unless you deliberately want to antagonise folk, of course.

Chalking the jack also has a relevance here.  Of course, it’s the responsibility of the team gaining a “toucher” to ensure that it is chalked, but you’ll see that it’s often the opposition skip or third who does this.  I interpret this as a sort of statement of honesty, whereby the person is very neatly expressing something to the effect of: “Ok, so I know that if this isn’t chalked and ends up in the ditch I could claim that it doesn’t count because it’s got no mark on it.  So just to prove what a good sport I am I’ll chalk it for you.”  Of course, the opposing player who’s benefited from the gesture should now say “Thank you”, “Cheers” or whatever passes for gratitude in their part of the world.

Other habits will also depend on the local environment.  At the indoor club where I play, for instance, there is a general convention that if one team is running away with victory they stop putting up the score on the scoreboard once they have passed about 20 shots – in other words, there’s no point in humiliating other club members.  (In a match between clubs, of course, this wouldn’t apply because everyone has to know what’s going on, especially when the match is based on aggregate scores over several rinks.)  But some people I know – quite mild and reasonable people, I should add – dismiss this idea of going easy on the opposition, and quite relish seeing a score like 36-3.   Just be aware of the conventions, wherever you are, and if you’re new to the game, or to a certain area, be ready to adjust.

After all these unpredictable events the end is finally completed and there has to be agreement on the number of shots.  The general rule here (and I mean, a rule of thumb as opposed to a rule of the sport) is that shots are conceded, as opposed to claimed.  So if you or your team have won the end you wait until your opposite number says how many shots (s)he is giving you.  You may think it should be one or even two more, in which case you can ask them to have another look, or to use a measure.  As you get more experience you’ll see things better and be more confident, but always remember that either through bias or bad eyesight the other person may be mistaken, so don’t be fobbed off.

The main point about conceding shots is that it is for the player on the side losing the end to remove bowls.  It looks bad (unless for some reason the players have come to another agreement) for the person winning the end to start picking up bowls or putting them to one side.

Technically, then, shots are conceded, but in reality, and especially in the men’s game, you’ll hear the side winning the end say  something like “Two?” (the implied question mark is important) to indicate what everyone can already see. It would waste time to go through some formal concession process.   There is a much greater edge and aggression when someone says something like “I’m looking for two.”  This rather invites some sarcastic rejoinder and the atmosphere can sour, so try to keep this bit of the game as light as possible.  Remember: “enjoy the game”!



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!



In the Bin Lid

“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.)

Leading the Way

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.