An introduction to the game of bowls
What we Brits (and citizens of other Commonwealth countries) call bowls is known in the US and elsewhere as lawn bowls, to distinguish it from the mechanised skittles game played in bowling alleys. Bowls is a game that has much more variety and subtlety to it, which is perhaps why it has not really caught on in America!
Bowls is played either indoors or outdoors, on a specially prepared lawn or carpet. There are two main varieties, flat green and crown green, but this article concerns the flat green game that is played more commonly, except in the north of England where the crown game is king.
The main requirement for the outdoor game is a perfectly flat and regular lawn, known as a green, that is usually 40 yards square. Bowls clubs take prodigious care of their greens, because it only takes one bad patch, or an area that is not perfectly level, for the game to become more of a lottery than a game of skill.
The object of the exercise is to propel a bowl, which is a fairly heavy hand-sized ball, towards a “jack”, which is between a golf ball and a tennis ball in size. The bowl that ends up nearest to the jack is the winner, but there’s a lot more to it than that! The tricky thing about the bowl is that it is not a perfect sphere but “biased”, so that as it runs along the ground its course is an arc rather than a straight line. As it slows down, the degree of curve in its course increases – if it is propelled slowly it will curve a lot more than if it is sent fast. The bowler has therefore to take this into account when sending the bowl on its way – a faster delivery will make the bowl go further but in a straighter line than a slower one. If you do not want the bowl to go too far, you have to take the bias into the reckoning when you are taking aim.
Not all bowls are the same. When you take up the game you have to decide what sort of bowls you want. They vary in size and weight, so you must make sure that you choose bowls that you are able to handle with comfort. Some bowls have a greater degree of bias than others – generally speaking, bowls for indoor use have less bias than outdoor bowls, but there is still plenty of variety even within indoor and outdoor bowls. Some players prefer a “swinging” bowl, others a “straight” one – and personal preference has a lot to do with confidence.
The game can be played by two bowlers playing against each other, or by two pairs, or two sets of three or of four. The games are therefore referred to as “singles”, “pairs”, “triples” or “fours” (or “rinks”). It is usual for singles and pairs players to play with fours bowls each, triples players to have three bowls, and fours players two. However, sometimes games are played with different arrangements.
The fours game is the one that is played most often when bowls clubs play each other in “friendlies”. Each team of four consists of a “lead”, a “two” a “three” and a “skip”. All the players will bowl two bowls each, taking turns with their opposite number, but each player also has a specific role within their team. The lead sends the jack down the green, and therefore determines whether the “end” will be long, short or in-between. The twos keep the score, the threes decide who has won the end, and by how many “shots”, and the skips give instructions to the other players as to how to play their shots.
As you might expect, with all those bowls being sent down, some of them are quite likely to bump into each other. That is all part of the game, as what matters is how the bowls lie after they have all been sent, and the later bowls have to take into account where the earlier ones have gone. You might want to hit the jack and send it to where another of your team’s bowls is waiting for it. Or you might want to hit one of the other team’s bowls and move it away from the jack. Every end is different and sets its own puzzles to be solved. That is why bowls is such a fascinating game to play.
Two other points must be made at this early stage. One is that bowls is a game for all ages. It has a reputation of being a game for old people, and is sometimes known as “granddad’s marbles”, but this is misleading. There are certainly many people of advanced years who play the game, but that is because it is one of the few outdoor sports where age is not a great handicap, at least at the amateur level. The exercise it provides is gentle rather than athletic. However, at the more competitive and professional levels it is becoming a much younger game, with many people taking it up in their teens and twenties.
The second important point is that there are few games around that are more friendly to play. The social aspect of belonging to a bowls club is extremely important, and most clubs do a great deal to foster their social side.
So there you have it – a very brief and sketchy introduction to a wonderful sport that anyone can play, even if they have never played any sort of sport before.
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