Melton unknowns stun bowls world

Melton Bowls Club's Norman Wilcock, Brian Bennett and Ken Diaper recently stunned the bowling world – and themselves – as they reached the semi-final of an All-England competition.

Melton Bowls Club's Norman Wilcock, Brian Bennett and Ken Diaper recently stunned the bowling world – and themselves – as they reached the semi-final of an All-England competition. Evening Star bowls columnist John Rednall talks to the Suffolk quartet as they reflect upon their Worthing experiences.

THE dust may have settled but the fantastic memories will never disappear.

This is very much the view of Melton's Ken Diaper, Brian Bennett and Norman Wilcock as their dream ticket passage to semi-final stardom at Worthing ebbs into the past.

A few weeks have gone since the intrepid trio represented Suffolk in the National Championships, taking the scalps of many who were favoured to conquer them; yet the run of victories and the manner in which they were achieved has kept the happy trio on a momentous high, probably only surpassed by the eventual winners themselves.

For those unfamiliar with the early chapters of the amazing story, the three players had made a ragged last-minute entry into the county triples, teaming up for the first time in their careers.

One of them had never entered EBA competitions before, another had moved from Bedfordshire and sought new playing partners, while the third had reached the nationals before, but some 18 years ago.

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By their own admission and to their own astonishment the makeshift trio were to reach the final of Suffolk and gain automatic qualification of the EBA national championships at Worthing, before pulling off a series of compelling victories which culminated in national and semi-finalists' medals and national newspaper headlines.

In a story which emphasised the great potential of our sport to make itself accessible to players of all ages and abilities, the 73-year-old Suffolk skip found fame and favour for being the most mature player in the event, and for playing some of the most memorable shots within a campaign.

He was interviewed by television commentators, journalists and spectators, and supported warmly by the neutral supporter.

But how did a triple which gave itself so little hope of glory turn in such bountiful performances? Wilcock told me: "We did not give ourselves a hope of any kind. We didn't expect to get past the first round of the county triples, let alone get to the National Championships. Maybe this attitude helped us as we did not have any expectations."

In Diaper's opinion the lack of reputation the Suffolk triple carried before them helped them to relax. He added: "The whole thing was so new to me. I did not have the pressure of knowing who the stars were and they certainly didn't know me!"

While the three players were compatible as friends and bowls colleagues, Wilcock reinforces the

surprise element.

"The amazing thing is we don't really see the game the same as each other. Tactically we are so different. We often didn't agree on the shot to be played, but somehow we got through. I think we baffled ourselves and the opposition with our unpredictability."

Perhaps Wilcock has a point here. Without doubt, unorthodox bowling can win games. I remember watching Melton's triples opponents trying to play their normal strategies, failing to cater for the shots that Diaper was about to play.

From an analytical point of view, the opponents in every round failed to be satisfied with one or two really good counting bowls. They tried to pile on the shots, making the target progressively larger, and leaving the Melton back bowls unmarked.

Perhaps this was an example of showing a lack of respect for the Melton master-skip, assuming he would not hit the target or play the accurate running bowl.

But how wrong could they have been. Diaper was to foil the plans and potential counts of representatives from four counties who tried to stand in the way of Melton's progress.

His uncanny ability to play the penetrating running bowl to pick up the jack and trail it to exactly the right position paid off time after time.

The best example was against Cornwall in the quarter-final when Diaper was to successfully administer a jack movement of a good four metres to make five shots when he faced a three down situation.

Reflecting on those shots, Diaper said: "I have never played as well as that in all my life. I just hit form during the championships. The atmosphere was brilliant and we had such marvellous support."

In analysing the skipping performance of Diaper, it is clear that his clinical accuracy in testing situations paved the way to last end victories in at least two rounds.

In the first round, Diaper converted a near impossible head to win the extra end for Suffolk. Facing a front toucher against and a less than favourable back position to Melton man cut the shot bowl off the jack with his first delivery before drawing the most precise winner with his last bowl. Great temperament under pressure.

Similarly, in the match against Richie McKee's Durham triple, Diaper was to play a dream last bowl to run the jack through when facing match-shot against.

Throughout the matches the Suffolk skip gave sensible, considered advice to his partners on positioning back-bowls; a quality highlighted by Wilcock.

"It was as if he knew exactly where the jack was going to finish up. You could see him studying the angles and anticipating the shot he was going to play." Another strength was demonstrated as Diaper bowled skilfully to displaced jacks. Many useful shots were added to the total in this manner.

Bennett's sound second-man's play was at its best as Melton overwhelmed Cornwall in front of the stands of spectators, while Wilcock's consistent leading was reaching its peak as Melton stampeded into the semi-finals.

At this point, nobody in the arena would dare bet against the underdogs taking the first prize.

The final day came, and a promising start saw Melton lead 4-1, only to see a count of six shots on the next end undone with the very last bowl of the Surrey skip. The wind was perhaps taken out of the Melton sails as the heads of bowls offered fewer opportunities for Wilcock, Bennett and Diaper to pick up counts.

Defeat was met with obvious sadness but also with praise for their opponents, gratitude for their supporters and joy at having come so far.

So, what about the future? Can the Melton mountaineers reach the summit of success on another occasion? The answer: who knows. But even if they don't, no one can take away the success they have achieved.

At the EBA dinner held at the Connaught Rooms in early December, proud Suffolk officials, a gathering of highly delighted Melton bowlers and their supporters will be present, ready to polish their shining medals which denote national championship semi-finalists 2001.

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