Hey! – Where did it go? – What? – The World Outdoor Bowls Championships, of course!
Hadn’t you noticed? – The last World Bowls, the one that was played at the Burnside, Papanui and Fendalton clubs in Christchurch, was staged way back in 2016. It was the 13th manifestation of our sport’s flagship event.
Sufferers from paraskevidekatriaphobia – the fear of anything connected with the allegedly unlucky number that follows 12 and precedes 14 – would be forgiven for thinking that bad luck might have plagued the 13th World Bowls – but it came and went without drama, disaster or derring-do.
But, no! It was the 14th World Bowls, which was scheduled to be played on Australia’s Gold Coast in 2020 that was jinxed. Like lots of other things, it fell foul of the COVID-19 pandemic, and was postponed until the following year. And, sadly, things had not improved in 2021, and it was cancelled again.
Then, of course, in 2022, the Commonwealth Games took centre stage, so there was no slot available for World Bowls.
So, it is with a sense of intense relief – and with fingers crossed – that bowlers are celebrating the belated arrival of the World Bowls carnival at the Broadbeach, Musgrave Park and Helensvale Bowling Clubs in Australia later this year, 2023.
Bowls International has invited veteran correspondent David Rhys Jones to take a trip down memory lane, and share with readers some of the highlights of World Bowls down the years, and, we
hope that, over the next few weeks, he will guide us through the archives, until the first bowls are rolled on the Gold Coast during the next staging.
TAKING THE WORLD BY STORM
Hello, readers! I guess that the reason the editor at large of Bowls International invited me to reminisce on the history of World Bowls may have been something to do with my advanced age – and the fact that I have actually attended eight of the first 13 instalments of bowls’ four-yearly shop window display.
As Max Boyce might say: “I was there” in Christchurch in 2016 and watched Kiwi Shannon McIlroy and Aussie Karen Murphy winning the men’s and women’s singles, and I confess I lost my journalistic impartiality when Welsh duo Jess Sims and Laura Daniels stormed to the women’s pairs title and England’s Andy Knapper, Jamie Walker and Rob Paxton struck gold in the men’s triples.
But, not so fast! – I promise I will wax lyrical about the brilliant bowls played at Burnside in a later feature. In the meantime, it’s important that I lay the ground by tracing the history of the event that has become such a central feature of our sporting diary.
The first thing to say is that it was not always there. Oh, no! Although the phenomenon that is World Bowls is part of the fabric of our sport, it’s a mere 56 years since the inaugural event was staged in 1966, a year otherwise notable for England’s first (and only) triumph in the equivalent soccer extravaganza. There are those of who remember it well!
My first first-hand experience of World Bowls was in 1984 when I had the best seat in the house, working for BBC TV. With me in the commentary box were the suave Dougie Donnelly, who was a consummate presenter and main commentator, who always said the right thing, and Jimmy Davidson, that jack-of-all trades, most of which he mastered, and who was so influential in the development of our sport in the 1980s and 1990s.
More later from Aberdeen. That, by the way, was the fifth World Bowls. I will describe in a future issue the extraordinary way that Peter Belliss denied Willie Wood in the singles final, how Tony Allcock and David Bryant were upstaged in the pairs final, and how Ireland and England came out on top in the triples and fours. But first we must ask the question – why did it take so long for bowls to stage a world championship?
IN THE BEGINNING…
I have read that a world tournament ‘of sorts’ was played in Los Angeles as part of the 1932 Olympics, but little is known of that unique event – and, from 1957 to 1968, an extraordinary competition, for the Vitalite World Singles Trophy was organised by World Bowls magazine.
The latter, rather like a virtual event that might be played on Zoom these days, involved competitors from all over the world drawing to the jack – on their own club green. Their performance (first over five ends, and later over eight) was measured and recorded, and the results sent (by post) to the organisers in London.
Middlesbrough’s Tom Fleming, who was a member of England’s gold medal winning four in the 1962 Commonwealth Games, was the Vitalite World Champion a total of seven times.
To be honest, despite those interesting attempts to ‘go global’, I don’t think anyone had come up with the idea of a proper world outdoor championship, and the inspiration came almost by accident, when bowls was left out of the prospectus for the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Jamaica, where there were no bowls clubs, or bowling greens for that matter.
NO ROOM AT THE INN
Bowls (or lawn bowls as it’s sometimes called to differentiate it from the ten-pin variety) had been a core sport in the Games from the start in 1930. Suddenly our sport was in the wilderness. Ironically, these days, Jamaica is affiliated to World Bowls, and I’m sure that, today, every effort would have been made to build a bowls infrastructure in Jamaica – but not in 1966.
What to do? – It was apparently an inspired suggestion from Dr Neil Benjamin, of the Australian Bowls Council (ABC) that led to the introduction of a world championship to make up for the loss of a place in the Commonwealth Games. The idea was greeted with enthusiasm by all bowling nations, and was officially approved by the International Bowling Board (IBB) in May 1965.
Sponsorship was in its infancy in those days, but the IBB received a great deal of support from AMPOL Petroleum and Qantas Airlines, and the first World Bowls was duly scheduled for the Kyeemagh Bowls Club, not far from Kingsford Smith International Airport
TO THE RESCUE, AUSSIE-STYLE
As always, the fast Australian greens proved to be tricky, but it was an ‘overseas’ player, none other than a 34-year-old Englishman called David Bryant, who rose to the challenge, and came out on top in the singles – just as he had in the Commonwealth Games in Perth four years before.
With 16 countries competing, a gruelling round robin system required every player to play 15 matches – and Bryant won 14 of them, losing just once, 21-18, to Welsh wizard Maldwyn Evans, from the Pentre club in the Rhondda Valley. Australia won the pairs through Bert Palm and Geoff Kelly, and the triples, courtesy of Don Collins, Athol Johnson and John Dobbie – and also became the first winners of the Leonard Trophy, awarded, as it has been ever since, to the most successful nation across all disciplines.
Bryant’s win in the singles had the effect of stopping a southern hemisphere monopoly, because New Zealand won the fours thanks to a strong display from Norman Lash, Ron Buchan, Gordon Jolly and Bill O’Neill. However, it did not go unnoticed that British bowlers occupied the first four places in the singles, with Bryant leading the pack, followed by Scotland’s John Hershaw, Ireland’s Scots-born Roy Fulton and stylish Welshman Maldwyn ‘Mal’ Evans.
WHAT ABOUT THE WOMEN?
In those days, bowls was a strictly segregated sport. The men monopolised the greens in the evenings, while the women (if they were lucky) had a chance to play among themselves in the afternoons, before hurrying home to get tea on the table for their menfolk. There was no discourse between the sexes, and the men’s and women’s games were organised separately.
No-one gave a thought to including women bowlers in the Commonwealth Games, which had been going since 1930. Indeed, women had to wait until 1982 before they were invited to join the Games party in Brisbane in 1982. So it was hardly surprising that, given the prevalent culture in 1966, the first World Bowls was an all-male affair.
I have a confession to make. When I left my teaching post in 1985, and embarked on a career in broadcasting and journalism, I had already been playing bowls for 30 years, but I knew nothing about the women’s game. To be honest, I had given it no thought at all. But I soon found how vibrant and competitive it was, and how it was every bit as newsworthy as the men’s game.
It’s clear that those women bowlers who had seen how successful the first World Bowls had been, began to say, “Why can’t we have a world championship?” And it was not long before arrangements were made for the first women’s World Bowls to be staged in 1969 – again in Sydney, and again near the airport – but this time at the Elizabethan Bowling Club in Rockdale.
IT WAS A START
Surprisingly, given the success of British men in 1966, no teams from the United Kingdom took part in 1969 at the EBC, where only six countries – Australia, Canada, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, South Africa and the USA – were represented. Never mind the Brits – where on earth were the Kiwis? – But it was a start.
South Africa sent a very strong team, and dominated proceedings. Indeed, they struck gold in pairs (Elsie McDonald and May Cridlan), triples (Sarah Sundelowitz, Yetta Emanuel and Cathy Bidwell) and fours (Sundelowitz, Emanuel, Bidwell and Cridlan).
Denying the South Africans a clean sweep, Gladys Doyle, from Papua New Guinea, won the singles, which was played on a round robin basis. Doyle won four of her five matches, losing only to South Africa’s Elsie MacDonald, who slipped up against the Fijian Dorothy Mumma. Tying on four wins apiece, Doyle was awarded the gold medal thanks her superior shots difference of +48 compared with MacDonald’s +35.
Male bowlers, who enjoyed their own world championships in 1966, were delighted when their sport returned to the next Commonwealth Games, which was scheduled for Scotland and Edinburgh in 1970.
But the first World Bowls had been such a success that there was a determination to do it all over again – and it was decided to run World Bowls every four years in between the Friendly Games.
That is how the second World Bowls (for men) came to be staged in Worthing’s Beach House Park in 1972, while the second women’s event followed at the Victoria bowls club in Wellington, New Zealand, in December 1973.
Welsh schoolteacher Mal Evans, 35, who dented David Bryant’s otherwise perfect record in Kyeemagh, triumphed in the singles at Worthing. He took gold, while dour Scot Dick Bernard snatched silver, and South Africa’s Tommy Harvey bagged bronze. The greens ‘tracked’ significantly, and it was noted that the three medallists had something in common. Evans and Harvey were left handers, who played their backhand both ways, while Bernard was using bowls with a narrow bias. All three were thus able to bowl ‘inside’ the line, while others struggled to come back off the ‘long grass’.
Hong Kong duo Cecil Delgado and Eric Liddell pocketed the pairs and USA trio Bill Miller, Clive Forrester and Dick Folkins took the triples, but the host country won the fours, thanks to Norman King, Cliff Stroud, Ted Hayward and Peter Line.
In the women’s jamboree in Wellington, eight countries – Australia, Canada, England, Fiji, Ireland, New Zealand, PNG, USA – were represented. It should have been nine, but Wales dropped out due, it was said, to ‘lack of finance’. Political pressure was beginning to target the South Africans, who had done so well in 1969, and they were not permitted to take part.
Although the Kiwis, for some reason, had not competed in the first World Bowls, they exploited their home advantage, and fairly stamped their authority on proceedings. Apart from winning the singles through Elsie Wilkie, they also picked up the triples and fours titles, while Australia’s Lorna Lucas and Dot Jenkinson denied the host country a clean sweep when they won the pairs.
England did well to come away with three silver medals. Correction – they would have done so if there had been any medals on offer! Mavis Steele was runner-up to Elsie Wilkie in the singles and (with Phyllis Derrick) also came second in the pairs. England also had to settle for second place in the fours, where the one-and-only Nancie Colling (yes, that’s what my records say!) led for Eileen Smith, Joan Sparkes and Phyllis Derrick.
While I was researching for this feature, I unearthed my old copies of the magazine World Bowls, which was in those days edited by tennis star Clarence Meddlycott (aka Jimmy) Jones, and was disappointed to find no mention of the second women’s World Bowls, which was played in December 1973.
Eventually, I came across the report. It was on page nine of the March 1974 issue!