7. The Anatomy of Singles

It is six o’clock in the evening of a hot summer’s day in Melbourne.

The distant hum of traffic and the nearer roar of trains can be heard as city workers head home to begin a long weekend in the sun. On a suburban green two men in white, are seeking the singles championship of their club. Spectators are gathered around, but out on the green it is a very lonely place.

That’s how it is in a singles match of any importance. For me, it is the loneliest place in the world at times, even though I have friends among those spectators on the bank; and more importantly, my parents and my wife, Ricky, are there to add their encouragement. In this case, it’s certainly needed because I trail my opponent by many shots, by 17 to 5 in fact, and the immediate future looks dim. Worse, I have allowed outside circumstances to affect my game and my shots are going sour.

Then just when I need it most, comes a word from Ricky in the form of a prayer that is private between us. It is a steadier, the turning point. My concentration returns and with it, my shots. Inch by inch, I get back into the game and after three-and-a-half hours, the match and the title are mine by 31 shots to 30.

I can’t help hearing the complimentary remarks from the bank. Clearly audible remarks like ‘that’s why he’s a champion’ and ‘he never knows when he’s beaten’. They’re nice to hear and don’t do my ego any harm, but deep down, I know what a close-run thing it has been and how I have almost handed the match to my opponent.

This story illustrates three things about the game of singles. You may have all the encouragement in the world, but ultimately you are on your own. No one can play the match for you or even tell you what to do. If you get into trouble there is only one person who can pull you out of it — you.

The second thing is that more than in any other type of game in bowls, singles demands total concentration on every bowl you put down. Many matches and titles have been lost when they should have been won, by players usually renowned for their concentration, who have lost their cool at vital moments.

Finally, the real excitement and attraction of a singles game lies not so much in the journey as in the arrival. Singles can produce surprise endings.

If I were going out today to play Rob Parrella in the final of a major singles tournament, I would make no forward plans. That may sound negative, but actually, it is the most positive approach one can take. Where there is only one opponent in a match, he can be full of surprises and you have to be alert and flexible to handle them. Where the match involves team play, some sort of tactical pattern can be worked out and often pays off.

Singles, on the other hand, can be quite different.

In playing Rob, I would marshal my psychological resources and attempt to concentrate for the entire match. I know Rob to be a skillful and aggressive player, particularly on the drive. Should he be playing better than I, then I would deliberately set out to change the pattern of the game. I would become more aggressive myself, slowing down the overall pace and changing the length of the ends and the position of the mat.

The importance of the psychological approach to singles cannot be over-emphasised. Here’s one example of what I mean1A.

The scene is a singles match against Sid Meredith from Kenya, in the 1980 World Championships at Frankston. Down 15 to 19 in a match of 21 up, Sid was outdrawing me, so I decided to change tactics and attack.

When Sid drew his first shot six inches away and jack high, I drove1B.

The shot was dead accurate, the end was killed and my opponent became so unsettled that I scored four, then two on the next two ends and won the match 21 to 19 .

It is often said that singles is not a game for the gambler and I suppose to some extent, that is true. Yet if I hadn’t gambled with that drive against Sid Meredith, I may not have gone on to win the silver medal at Frankston.

The secret is in knowing when to gamble. For the most part, it pays to play percentage bowls, since the singles game is mostly about drawing. I’ve known many bowlers who have tried to drive their way out of trouble, simply because they were being outdrawn. The usual result has been that they became drive-happy especially if the tactic worked a few times. In the end, the percentages catch up with such a player.

If you find yourself being constantly outdrawn, there is really only one way out of the problem. Get out on the practice green and develop your draw shots until they work. At the same time, take care not to swing to the other extreme and neglect to practice your controlled shots.

Consistency in drawing is another way of applying subtle psychological pressure on an opponent. If you can keep placing your shots on the head, time after time on any length, you not only gain the superior position, but also the upper hand by provoking acts of frustration in your opponent. He will lose concentration and make mistakes.

A match played in windy conditions can be the most challenging of all the tests you are likely to meet in your career. The toughest I can remember was the final match of the Frankston World Bowls. David Bryant and I found ourselves having to match shots and wits in a westerly of twenty knots, gusting to thirty at times. How we managed to display any sort of skill at all, I don’t know. That day, I lost to David by two shots, but learned a great deal. One lesson was that it doesn’t always pay to follow accepted theories about playing in wind.

Many top bowlers prefer long ends with the wind, and short ends against it.

I prefer the reverse because it makes me concentrate all the more. Indeed, the object is to out-concentrate my opponent, because in these conditions, a lapse can not only be costly in the short-term, it can also make it hard to recover lost ground.

Incidentally, when playing into the wind (anything 10 degrees either side of the jack) try to deliver generally off the outside edge of the mat, rather than the inside. This reduces the angle of draw to the jack and gives the wind less chance to work against the small or biassed side of the bowl.

In all singles matches, there is no easy or simple formula for success.

Each match has its own particular pattern and it has to be played as you see it. Only time and experience will teach you how to play winning singles, but if you adopt a positive mental attitude, acquire a smooth, rhythmical and accurate delivery and, above all, concentrate, then you will ultimately make it.

Remember to look for the opportunities in each end you play and when they come —as they always do — seize them with the best shot you can play. You may be pleasantly surprised with the end result. Like this one.

This is the last head of the Victorian Masters Final of 19682A — one that I will long remember. I am leading 30 to 29 but two down on the head against Dr Leigh FitzPatrick. The green is running at over 16 seconds and the jack has been trailed to the boundary line.

After walking to the head to check the position, and to give myself time to settle, I decided to draw the shot2B. For some inexplicable reason, I knew that I could draw the shot, impossible though it seemed to many people watching.

This shot2C was the result of having confidence in one’s own ability, or if you like, the power of positive thinking. It was also enough to give me my first major title.

Or this one. I’ve re-created the set-up of the last head of the final in the World Open Singles played at Christchurch in New Zealand3A. The finalists are Peter Belliss, of New Zealand, and Barry Salter, from Newcastle, New South Wales. Peter’s bowls carry the crosses. In a 25-up match, Barry leads 23 shots to 22 and on this head, holds three more. The green is running about 14 seconds and there is a gusty, fish-tailing wind.

Barry’s shot bowl is a toucher. Remember that he holds second and third and his position appears to be impregnable. The backhand is almost completely blocked and because of the wind, the forehand is almost unplayable — almost, but not quite.

In desperation, Belliss decides to drive on the forehand3B in an attempt to save the game in any way he can. It is his last bowl.

To everyone’s amazement, including Belliss’, the drive takes out Salter’s three shots3C, leaving the Newcastle man with only one very short bowl on the green, and Belliss with three shots for the match and the title.

If ever proof was needed that a match is not over until the last bowl is down, then this was it. It’s worth remembering Belliss’ last, desperate drive the next time you are down, but not quite out.

The other side of the coin is in thinking the match is yours when you are holding a handy lead and are only one or two shots from home. That is the time to do your damnedest. I’ve seen too many players falter at the last hurdle, simply because they had convinced themselves that they had already won. I’m not suggesting for one moment that this was the case with Barry Salter. Far from it. He had fought hard and long and was in a superb situation on the last end, only to see Peter Belliss get up in the last stride with that most amazing of shots.

I’m often asked at what pace a bowl should be played. The answer, naturally, depends on the situation at the head. But instinctive judgment based on experience, will guide you in determining the weight of a delivery4A. It should also be remembered that you will almost certainly be faced with at least two choices of shots in any situation. Making the correct choice is what winning bowls is all about.

Faced with this situation4B, I would choose to play with something more than draw-weight.

In fact, I am attempting to play the shot to finish about four metres past the jack.

The factors in this decision are:

  1. The shot bowl may be moved far enough so that my three ‘seconds’ would count4C.
  2. If I am narrow, and contact my short bowl, then there still would be sufficient pace to remove my opponent’s shot bowl.
  3. If I am narrower still, I can run through the opposition’s short bowl and into the head.

As things turn out4D, my bowl has scored a direct hit on the shot bowl, taken it out and left me three shots up. In this type of situation, it’s wise to play from the outside edge of the mat to provide a greater margin.

Drawing close to the jack is the heart of the single-handed game.

The old-timers will tell you that a good draw-shot bowler will beat a good driver every time. It’s a bit like the big-man, little-man theory in boxing, but things don’t always turn out that way.

A good singles player has mastery over all types of shots, but this takes time and much practice. If you come up against an opponent who is willing to drive without compunction, remember your priorities. Draw into the jack with your first two bowls, then go for position behind the head if he disturbs it. With your last shot on any end, whether you are up or down, play it as if your life depends on it.

There is the other side to singles which we will talk about in a later chapter. I’ve called it ‘the inner game’ for fairly obvious reasons.

For now, remember that no champion ever got to be one without practice: first the draw, then the controlled shots, finally the drive. Above all, remember that the chief demand of singles is for concentration of the highest order.

Take all that in, and you won’t go far wrong.

Next: 8. Teaming Up or 8. Teaming Up (updated)