Bowls can’t be that hard a sport to get the hang of, can it?
Steve Penny gets a masterclass from one of the world’s top players, Greg Harlow, into the basics of the game
The World Indoor Bowls Championships get under way at Potters Resort on the Norfolk coast on January 12.
Masters of the sport will be floating their bowls down the lush blue carpet to rest within millimetres of the jack.
It looks easy doesn’t it…
Even local club players’ smooth action sees their ’woods’ glide down the green towards the jack.
So what were my bowls doing careering off at tangents into the ditch, petering out barely halfway down the green or drifting aimlessly long after doing an impression of a Dambusters’ raid?
An hour later thanks to a masterclass from current world No.4 Greg Harlow on one of Potters’ 14 immaculate indoor rinks, I was getting the hang of things and mastering the basics.
I was co-ordinated after all and even managed to outdraw the 2006 and 2012 world No.1 in one end (the fact he only played one bowl to my four was besides the point and that one of those was sitting hidden in the ditch)
However, my novice challenge obviously helped Greg’s preparation for the following week’s Scottish Open Championship, where he successfully defended his title as he continues to climb back up the rankings, having only once been outside the top two between 2006 and 2012.
There is far more to the game than meets the eye.
After going through the basics and showing me how to hold the bowl and explaining how the bias works, Greg watched as my first bowl curled gracefully to the jack… and whizzed past it to land in the ditch behind.
My second followed a similar line but I had over-corrected and it finished nearer to me than the target but, Greg insisted, was in an ideal position to act as a guide for my next shot.
Sure enough, it was third time lucky as my next effort nestled comfortably alongside the jack.
It does take a lot of getting used to. Aiming your bowl well away from the jack, using its position purely to judge the distance.
Indeed, the aiming point is often as far as two lanes away due to the nature of the curl from the bias.
Some players actually pick a spot high on the wall, while others choose a mark on the carpet a few feet in front of them and don’t look up at all.
“It’s whatever suits you best,” said Greg. “None of them is wrong or right, it’s just what you feel most comfortable with.”
The slightest change of direction or pace has a huge effect on the final position of the bowl.
“At your stage of playing, it’s all about trial and error and working out how to avoid over or under compensating,” explained Greg.
“Much of that cannot be taught or explained.
“Even after 30-plus years playing I struggle to explain what makes a good shot. It just ‘feels’ right.”
The next end saw me got quite a few bowls to something like the correct area and you could throw an, admittedly large, “virtual” blanket over all four and the jack.
Having got a vague idea of what I was doing, Greg tormented me by making the next end much shorter and somehow stifled his sniggers as my swagger disappeared rapidly as my bowls went merrily on their way past the object of my aim.
Then came the chance to “let loose” with some driving practice.
Greg placed the jack between two bowls barely 10 inches apart at a distance of 30-plus metres from the mat, where I looked in vain for binoculars.
But Greg showed his eyesight and aim was in no need of artificial assistance, driving his bowl expertly between the two others to send it and the jack crashing into the ditch.
My first attempt was surprisingly accurate, worrying the right-hand bowl enough to perhaps make it quiver.
No such luck with the following three though, which all careered wildly wide.
Greg explained all the intricacies of both draw and drive shots, as well as the differences of bias, size and weight between various bowls and the importance of tactics to either keep you in the game or put your opponent under pressure.
He then pressed the importance of how much muscle memory helps once you get the feel of the green.
“Every green is different, even the indoor ones will change during the day,” he explained.
That is especially the case during the World Championships in which Greg will be competing.
He gets no “home” track knowledge though, the green is built from scratch and he will only get the same practice opportunities of the other players.
As for any “world title” ambitions of my own, Greg thought I’d done well as a complete novice and suggested a block of six sessions would be enough to get me started and able to play socially.
Then it would be a case of playing in a few “roll up” sessions to start to get competitive and with three of four of those under my belt I might stand a chance of playing a useful part in a team.
But for now, my bowls experience will involve watching Greg and his colleagues go for world glory at Potters, wishing him every success as he aims to reclaim his place at the top of the global rankings.
This feature first appeared in Take One newspaper