Bowled over

By Mark Ashenden

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Bowling towards the jack

Anyone seen this guy called Jack?

Balls. We kick them, we throw them at people with bats, and we'll even walk for miles across the countryside to whack them into tiny holes.

But how about a game where our spherical friends curve?

Chuck in a smaller ball to aim at, call him Jack, and get rolling.

My first bowls experience was spent in the company of the England performance director John McGuinness, learning about bias, forehand draws and murky tales of sledging.

Never before have I felt so much intrigue and excitement with a ball in hand.

"It's an easy game to play, but a hard game to play well," former international McGuinness told me.

Crouching on the mat, I fumbled with my grip, squinted at my target, 'the jack' (a white speck 23 metres away), and rolled my very first bowl.

It bounced slightly (a cardinal sin in the bowls world) and seemed to be heading in a reasonable direction.

But my bowl rolled on... and on until it found a comfortable new home called the ditch.

This was not a good place to be.

A helping hand from the bowling coach

Spot the bowl competition

My second bowl veered wildly to the left, with much of the credit going to the bias I had heard so much about.

Thankfully, to some extent, my bowl was not making friends in the ditch but having its own party without anything else within 15 feet.

My coach had had enough. Time to step in and correct a few basics.

Firstly, my grip was all over the place. "A firm but gentle cradling" was the required action.

Next came my hapless feet - they weren't pointing in the direction of my bowl.

Plus, I needed a hand on the thigh to help my balance and a steady step forward before a smooth delivery.

So what's all this fuss about bias?

Each bowl is shaved on one side, causing its direction to bend, and the bias will frustrate and mesmerize your average beginner in equal measure.

Bring on the coach again.

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“It's important to stay calm in the heat of competition”

England performance director
John McGuinness

"It's a game of correction," McGuinness explained. "It's all about your touch and feel. You have to consider all the variables - speed, direction and the bowls set-up.

"You then apply all the changes in your next shot. Bowl too fast and the bowl won't curve. Too slow and the bend can take you off course."

Focusing on a smooth bowling arm was all the more difficult after being told to stop waving my bum in the air.

"Just let the bowl do the work," McGuinness added.

Aiming seven feet to the left of the jack, I hoped the bowl would bend in to the right.

In fact, it nestled itself right next to it. I had no idea how I had done it. My coach gave me a hearty slap on the back.

It was time to upgrade my lesson and try the driving shot - the big, blasting, straight shot that players use to remove the jack.

My bowl flew pathetically wide. The analysis? I was tense and my arms had flapped like a windmill. The thought of my 'big shot' had driven my adrenaline levels through the roof.

Ellen Falkner

Players like Falkner are helping to give bowls a younger image

"It's important to stay calm in the heat of the competition," I was warned. How good would I be under the Melbourne sun at the Commonwealths playing up to three games in one day over eight hours?

Plenty of older folk still play bowls, but things are changing.

The pipe-smoking David Bryant has been replaced by stars like England's 26-year-old World Matchplay champion Ellen Falkner.

And thanks to TV, the nation has regular access to major championships. New match formats are also spicing things up with the new "set play" and bowlers in hideously bright shirts regularly entertain packed arenas.