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Many decades ago, when I started playing bowls, there was a very special group of bowlers, an elite group you could call them and that was dedicated leads. These players would only play in the lead’s position whether that be at club, representative, international or world level.

As players they wouldn’t deviate from that position and were allowed to do that no matter the situation. Everyone just accepted that, and it wasn’t questioned too much because leading is challenging to some but not to everyone as it was, and up to a point still is, an envied position to play in.
David Corkill reports.

It’s important to be honest when contemplating what makes a good lead. It is a position so often given to relatively new bowlers and some do very well but the vast majority move to second relatively quickly. The reason? Many say they just don’t enjoy the remoteness of playing in that position. At least, that is one reason I have heard many times; another is they get bored. I can accept both those statements.

However, the real reason can often be that when you show great promise at leading the demands at club level become unavoidable. For any player to stay at lead for years and then progress to representative level is a natural pathway, but also becoming more a difficult one to stay on.

The game of bowls has changed over the years with the decline in numbers and recruitment being an almost impossible task there is little chance of that improving. I have seen it so many times when young bowlers come into the sport and are leading only to go ‘down’ the rink after a couple of years.

Leading is a great place to learn the sport, but one I don’t agree with for an inexperienced bowler. I prefer second if at club level. That changes, at least for me, at international level but of course you don’t have inexperienced bowlers at that dizzy height of the sport. Or do you? A question for another article in the future, I think!

Club bowls can so often be driven by the necessity to put out one or more teams every week. To be able to place one or more of your most talented players at lead is a luxury, and one that most clubs just can’t afford.

Hence the bowlers that play lead at representative level are quite often playing third or skip at club level. It’s just a situation hard to avoid unless of course you are in a very strong and successful club that can afford that luxury. Unfortunately, that is becoming a rarity these days.

Leading is often oversimplified. The theory of rolling the jack and in fours play putting your two bowls as close to the jack as you can is not complicated. Simple as that. The reality is a whole lot different.

Leading – the good elements:

  • The chances are that the skip will give you a certain amount of freedom as to what length of jack you wish to play especially at the start of the match.
  • You will get a chance to select which side of the green you wish to start off on and possibly stay on for the whole match. 
  • There is no requirement to play anything other than drawing weight; no yard on or running bowls that demand a change of weight and line.
  • You enjoy independence at lead. Play your own game against the opposition and after that the rest of the rink can take over. It’s almost like a two-bowl match of singles. Which is easy to assess and in the case of selectors easy to judge performance.
  • Generally, but not always the tactical shot play discussions are usually taken by the third and skip so no pressure to test the little grey cells.

Of course, there is always an occasional lead that really believes they are a skip in disguise and try to dictate strategy. They are great! Back end players love that input and take heed every time, or not as the case maybe.

Leading the bad elements:

  • You are incredibly exposed to everyone, there is nowhere to hide.
  • There are very few bowls in the head to rest on or stop a heavy delivery.
  • Pressure to deliver the jack to a required exact distance when demanded to do so. Harder to do than you might think. For some leads it is a mystery.
  • Ability to ignore all the decisions being made around you. Many you may not agree with. That is so very difficult to do.
  • Change of length request even if you are playing well at one particular distance.
  • You may be sacrificed for the good of the overall rink by a change of tactics requested by the skip.
  • Not always getting the credit you deserve. Your name is not in lights the skips is. Though on occasion that can be a benefit as well.
  • The clearest one of all, the pressure to play close bowls all the time.

There are so many aspects to playing lead, but for now let’s leave it at a few. This is not a full analysis of that position, just a light discussion about the luxury of dedicated leading opportunities that often don’t apply any more.

I play lead quite often now in pairs and triples indoors, but more at second and third and the same outdoors. Leading is liberating it brings a freedom that, as I have pointed out, opens up the chance to do what most decent bowlers should be able to do and that is draw to the jack.

Really good singles players are often or were top class leads as the need to win the battle of the first two bowls in singles is very much to their advantage.

Leading is not a position to hide anyone. It is specialist in particular at representative level but have a look at international and world level and you will notice that very few leads that are selected rarely play in that position at club level.

They are a rare commodity. A breed of bowler that are specialists and can hold their position in international teams for many years. Many get 50 or 75 caps for their country because they so valuable to a winning team. An example of that is John Rednall, of England. A proper legend who reached the magical 100 caps. A dedicated lead who had few equals. The way the sport has changed I doubt that will ever be repeated.

But how many are coming after him those that will be left to do what they do best. I expect very few because so much of the limelight goes to skips and that is very attractive to many good bowlers. Some have found out too late that that can be a poison challis.

There is one overriding thought that comes to mind when I look for specialist leads and that is the ability to play their own game, but at the same time stay calm when the match around them is disintegrating into chaos. The very best are often bowlers that are seen by a few for what they are – dedicated specialist.

Great leads are gifted and if left to their own devices can bring success to any rink. But it is a position that brings obvious freedom but also many challenges and is one not to be underestimated.

They have my utmost respect but only a few are legends of the sport.

Please note: Views expressed by David Corkill do not necessarily represent those of the team at Bowls International.

Caption: John Rednall (seen left) – a proper legend who reached the magical 100 caps. A dedicated lead who had few equals