2. The Banker from the Bush

Is the world of sports merely a world of dreams? Possibly, yet dreams are not always foolish and sometimes they can become goals. Mine did, and over the last twenty years or so, I’ve had the great good fortune to have achieved most of them.

As a boy I often dreamed (as boys do) of being a champion, at anything; and in those years just after the Second World War, there was plenty of material around to feed such ideals.

I was born at Jerilderie, New South Wales, in 1934, in the middle of the Great Depression. Three years later, my family moved to the Murray River township of Mathoura and set up house across the road from the public tennis courts and the local football oval. My father, Syd, was a keen sportsman – still is, for that matter – and was well-known around Mathoura for his prowess at tennis, cricket, football and billiards. Life in a bush town was pretty good for a young nipper in those days, and while my parents were not all that strict, they made sure I wasn’t going to misspend my youth in Mathoura’s billiards parlour. Nevertheless, from time to time, I was able to sneak a look through the yellowed windows at Dad, my idol, in action at the tables.

With such a mentor, I soon became sports-mad, and showed promise at most of those I took up. It didn’t stop on the playing fields – any sporting book, magazine or newspaper article I could lay my hands on would be read and reread. On reflection, my desire to analyse all sorts of sports, games and those who played them goes back to those days.

Mathoura did pretty well in the district cricket and football competitions, despite its population of less than 1000, so it was with great pride that at the age of thirteen, I was selected in the town’s senior football side. It could hardly have been for my size, weighing in as I did at 45 kilograms (7 st. 2 Ibs). Next, I was chosen for Mathoura’s cricket team.

Between school, family, cricket and football, there didn’t seem much time for anything else. But there was tennis, just across the road, and soon the other sports were being pushed into the background.

Tennis produced my first firm thoughts about the future. I wanted to be a champion and to play Davis Cup for Australia. By 1951 we had Hoad and Rosewall, Sedgman and McGregor, and when in that year I was chosen to join a squad of young hopefuls being coached by that tough old task-master, Harry Hopman, I thought I was on my way. My first day in the squad was awful. After hitting only two balls, Hopman called me to the net. ‘Son’, he said, ‘do you know that your reflexes are abnormally slow?’ My father had mentioned this on several occasions, but when Harry Hopman spelled it out, well that was that – no Davis Cup for John Snell. But there was my career with the Bank of New South Wales to think about and my late teens and early twenties settled into a succession of postings to country towns around Victoria.

With marriage, work, tennis and my latest discovery, golf, life was again full. It took me until 1960 to find one sport where slow reflexes did not inhibit my progress. The way things turned out, I was fortunate to have taken up bowls at the age of twenty-five, which was extremely young for a bowler in those days. The early taste of bowls sparked that dream of mine, to become a champion sportsman. It came in such a natural, unconscious way, that I am puzzled why newspaper people make such a thing of it.

The bank had transferred me to Kaniva, a small wheat town in Victoria’s Wimmera, not very different from so many others in the area. Lack of competition on the tennis court and the constant interruptions to life’s routines through bank postings, had caused my interest in tennis to fall away. In Kaniva the tennis courts happened to be right alongside the town’s bowling green. I had known a little about the game from staying with my uncle at Echuca, and at Kaniva I began to spend a bit of time hanging over the fence, waiting for a set of tennis, and watching the bowls. A casual invitation one day to try my hand around a bowl was enough to make me jump that fence.

I realised pretty quickly, as do most bowlers, that not only was bowls much harder than it looked, but it was also a sport in which to become absorbed. I worked hard at my fitness and my game and determined to become as good as I could. Twenty-two years on, and nothing has changed.

But more of that later. Kaniva was the start but in 1961 it was time for another bank posting, this time to Heywood in Victoria’s Western District. Whether or not fate was taking a hand I don’t know, but it was at Heywood that I met a most remarkable man who was to play a big part in shaping my approach to bowls Gordon Langdon. Gordon saw nothing special in himself, but others did, and they never doubted his guts and determination, in learning to play left-handed after losing the use of his right arm. Gordon was a great inspiration to me and I learned much from playing with and against him, especially in his two defeats of me in the club singles championships of 1962 and 1963. In later years, I had the pleasure of playing in his Victorian team where he impressed me as one of the best drawshot bowlers I had seen.

My first club championship came two years later with a transfer to Ararat. If there was a real turnaround in my career, it came at Ararat and not Kaniva. That championship made me realise that to get anywhere, in bowls and in life, one must have a set of real goals, and not merely dreams. I set mine, both long and short term: nothing less than the best in the world, and along the way, the best in Victoria, then Australia. All this meant sacrifice and dedication. Much to my wife Ricky’s concern, I spent many of my leisure hours practising and analysing the game, as well as the style and tactics of the top bowlers in the district. But Ararat also brought me the thing I most wanted. In 1966, in a successful defence of the club championship, Ricky came to watch me play for the first time, and gradually, from that point, her bewilderment turned to support for what I was trying to do.

With hindsight, it is strange how the shape of my bowls career was governed by my bank postings. From Ararat, the next took me to Corryong and with it, a promotion, although it didn’t seem that way at the time. Corryong is a delightful town, nestling in the Snowy Mountains of north eastern Victoria. It is cold country, with snow and a short bowling season and because it was so far from anywhere, the Corryong Club didn’t have a pennant team. It was virtually social bowls only, which was enough of a challenge to make me spend hours in lonely practice. When in 1968 I appeared in Melbourne during my annual holidays, to play in the Victorian Masters title, I threatened nothing and no one. I had no pressure on me, because I wasn’t expected to survive the first round, let alone win the title.

In almost every match I had to come from behind and in the final, it was the same, winning with the last bowl of the last end.

What a dream way to win my first major title!

Oddly enough, when I went back and won again the following year, there was still no pressure. Nobody had ever won the Masters twice, let alone two consecutively. It was enough to secure my next goal – to play for Victoria. Those three years at Corryong, it seems, were significant ones for they saw me on my way to success, despite the lack of competitive bowls in the district. In fact, this period threw me back on my own resources and the conditions there of slow, heavy and often wet greens, forced me to change my style.

After nine years in the game, I found myself playing for Victoria with my sights now set on representing Australia. Victoria nominated me for a place in the national team for the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Scotland, the 1972 World Championships in England, the 1974 Games in Christchurch and the 1976 World titles in South Africa. I stayed at home for them all. Then in 1978 came the green and gold blazer I had so long sought. That trip to Canada earned me a silver medal in the singles, as did the 1980 World Championships at Frankston. Each time, David Bryant proved himself, as he has done so often, to be the best in the world. Nevertheless, there is still time for that one remaining goal to be mine.

When one looks at it, the sport of lawn bowls has been virtually standing still for more than 100 years. Certainly, there have been changes, but they have been small and sometimes hardly perceptible. Tradition, one of the game’s finest attributes, has in the past been treated with too much respect, proving a barrier to real change in the way bowls has been promoted. As it has happened, change has been imposed from outside and the spark has been provided by the television coverage of the 1980 World Championships and other events since then, as well as by the television series, Jack High. Television has whetted people’s appetites for bowls and shown that it is a real contest and not merely a pastime.

I believe the sport stands now where tennis stood twenty years ago, facing the onset of an ‘open’ or professional game. It is a time for new blood and particularly new champions, which is one of the reasons for writing this book. If it helps bring in that new blood, or in some small way, contributes to the making of even one new champion, then to some extent I will have repaid the game for the rewards it has given me.

Differing circumstances, and physical and mental make-up, make it impossible for everyone to follow my ‘beginner to master’ plan. But with a similar approach to short and long term goals, and with determination and application, anyone can make it.

I like Thomas Edison’s famous dictum which to me sums it all up: ‘Genius is one per cent inspiration, and ninety-nine per cent perspiration’.

Next: 3. The Basics or 3. The Basics (updated)