Team Bowls geared up to cash in

BOWLS: John Rednall talks exclusively to this year's Commonwealth Games team member and singles representative Mervyn King and to the Bowls England co-ordinator, multiple world champion, Tony Allcock.

JOHN Rednall talks exclusively to this year's Commonwealth Games team member and singles representative Mervyn King and to the Bowls England co-ordinator, multiple world champion, Tony Allcock.

With fanfares, fireworks and flamboyance unprecedented, the international stage is set for a year to remember.

In just two months time, athletes from every corner of the globe will make their way to Manchester for the 2002 Commonwealth Games to rewrite the record books and add new chapters to the volumes that celebrate heroes of past and present.

Grandiose in size and standing, the event offers the masters of sporting excellence a stepping stone to the pinnacle of the international sportsman's ambitions; the summit of competitive excellence, followed by an emotion-filled promenade upon the red carpets which herald the triumphant to the gold-tipped podium.

Medals will shine in the Lancashire sunlight adorning those who have dedicated themselves to hours of practice and preparation and to those who have performed the best over gruelling schedules of matches, with concentration never faltering and desire undaunted.

Among the well-prepared athletes will be England's medal hopes in the men's and women's bowls events, unified under the guise of Team Bowls England.

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A squad of bowlers will never have been better trained and efficiently equipped, led by a legend who has held world championships in his palm.

When Sport England agreed to offer a substantial grant to England's bowlers for the purpose of producing world-class performers and prospective medal winners, the English Bowling Association could have named no better exponent of the outdoor game to lead by example.

Tony Allcock has had a major role in selecting and organising a forward thinking and futuristic team capable of success.

He told me, "This is a wonderful opportunity for English bowls. We have received the funding to prepare a very industrious and dedicated team.

"However, we must remember that this grant is only a one-off. We must make the most of it."

He points out that English bowls is merely following the process that other countries have had in place for several seasons. "Some nations have had funding for four or five years and this shows in their attitude and success."

Allcock is realistic and concedes that even the best opportunities and training cannot necessarily guarantee champions. "There is no divine right to win, but if our bowlers do fail to win medals it will not be for the want of commitment and work-rate."

That commitment process commenced back in October 2000 when a list of international bowlers, male and female was compiled.

The players, myself included, were asked to read the proposals for a revolutionary scheme that would involve a squad of players in coaching sessions, personal fitness regimes, psychology lectures and international competition. Complete commitment in attitude and time would be paramount.

With time, the initial squad would eventually be judiciously pruned down to the elite squad and eventually to the 14 Commonwealth Games representatives to take part in singles, pairs and fours events.

My friend and international colleague, Mervyn King was ultimately selected as the singles hope and recalls his delight at receiving the telephone call confirming his selection.

"It was a dream come true really. It's the opportunity we all play for but to be selected for the singles was even more special."

Mervyn knew that he had a chance of making the squad after several successful seasons in international series. Playing at number two with Norfolk colleague John Ottaway at lead has provided England with one of its most effective front end partnerships for years.

Ottaway, too, is selected for Manchester and takes his place in the fours event, alongside Simon Skelton, Robert Newman and David Holt.

Dean Morgan and Stephen Farish team up to try to land a medal in the pairs.

Once selected the squad members made two trips to Loughborough where they undertook VCO2 tests.

The players were given targets to improve their oxygen intake and embarked upon individual fitness programmes. King told me: "My fitness scores improved by around 40 per cent. We used gymnasium machines to help our strength, flexibility and endurance."

The sight of bowlers on rowing machines, steppers and weights may seem unusual to the club bowler but an all-round programme to give our players the best chance was deemed essential.

It is also to be remembered that bowlers are part of that enormous team of athletes who all proudly wear the same Commonwealth Games uniform, and reside at the same athletes' village. In the Commonwealth Games, you are an athlete.

If body-building was one aspect, then mind-building was another. The bowlers then attended squad training days at Leamington to discuss "controllables" and "uncontrollables," to learn how to focus concentration and how to think positively even when the pressure is at its utmost.

Mervyn told me: "We have learned to hide away the negative thoughts like the frustrations of a difficult rink or bad result. We have discussed how to handle pressure in different situations."

Just in case of a heatwave over Manchester, the English Commonwealth Games team have carried out warm weather training by visiting South Africa on two occasions.

"We played two test matches under the format used in the Commonwealth Games. It was useful to actually play against the representative I may meet in July," added King.

Just two days after returning from Durban, King then had to make his way to the Tweed Head Club, New South Wales, Australia for three tests.

"We played on an indoor carpet and I played against Steve Glasson who will probably be Australia's singles player." England lost the series 2-1 with King losing in two sets, 9-8 and 9-6.

Just a fortnight ago, the English bowlers confronted the Manchester greens which will, hopefully, be the setting for personal and collective glory.

They will have the benefit of practising on the greens that were only constructed 12 months ago and this knowledge may be a key factor in deciding whether or not medals will be won.

What ever happens, the venue must surely benefit the home country. There will be substantial support for all of the British teams and admiration for all the competitors taking part, yet the most vocal will be in favour of the English.

And with the Lancashire climate taken into account, it must be unlikely that new grass greens will run like Australian and New Zealand equivalents.

Even the most adaptable Aussie may struggle to conquer the unfamiliar surface.

My prediction is that the fight for medals will on this occasion be between those representing England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, firstly because they are undoubtedly strong, but secondly because they will be so much more used to British conditions.

If this is the case, then King may be able to draw upon the confidence boosts afforded him in the recent test matches in Wales when he thrice defeated the Welsh singles exponent and former indoor world champion, Robert Weale.

We wish all teams good bowling in Manchester.

May this year's Commonwealth Games be oh so memorable!