Troubled times for the Gazza of the green

Football has long been known for its bad boys. But bowls? Down in Torquay they've never seen anything like Griff Sanders. By Alex Hayes
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Not since a gentleman by the name of Basil Fawlty ran a guest house there has Torquay witnessed drama on this scale. Last week, the Devon County Bowls Association handed Griff Sanders, the self-professed "bad-boy of bowling", an unprecedented 10-year ban from the sport for denouncing a senior county official as a "tosser". And you thought bowls was boring.

The decision is causing quite a stir in Torquay. "Every game has a code of conduct, and he has undeniably broken that code," admits Alan Horwell, President of the local Kings Bowling Club in Torquay. "Perhaps he needed to have a stick waved at him to be brought back into line. But 10 years? Most bowls players around here think the ban is far too draconian. He's hardly a monster."

As I sit in Sanders's bed-sit sipping a cup of tea, I fail to detect any wickedness in the man. With long hair, a scruffy appearance and a thick Devon accent, he may not look and sound like the archetypal bowls player, but then again who would want to?

"Nah, I'm not a monster," he says. "He [Mr Smerdon, the secretary of the Devon County Bowling Association] doesn't like me. He's made that clear and I've got no power over the man. I called him a tosser, and I'm proud of the thing I said. I really wanted to let him know what he is."

How does such a sedate game manage to arouse such passions? "I should be in Kuala Lumpur now, playing in the Commonwealth Games. Not only that, but I should have been playing for England years ago. Smerdon is the Devon secretary. If I don't get picked for Devon, I can't play for England. Because I'm a bit rebellious and I've got long hair and always say my bit, he doesn't like it because he's jealous."

Sanders started playing bowls with his grandparents when he was 11. By the time he was 16, he was regularly beating far more experienced and senior players. "It's bound to upset them. Think about it. I'm not just winning, I'm entertaining as well. Years ago, most people would watch snooker because Alex Higgins and Jimmy White were characters and that. Otherwise, snooker's really boring to watch. Well, it's the same with bowls. But I guarantee you that if I was on TV, even if I lost the first round, the sponsors would want me back. I'm unique. I've been told that."

Sanders has described himself as the John McEnroe of bowling. But we're talking bowls here; it's hardly pulse-racing stuff, is it? Besides, if you hurled a bowling ball at the ground in rage you'd just break your foot. "Look," says the Gazza of the green, "bowls is crap to watch but when you start playing, it becomes really addictive. It's like golf: you end up playing against yourself. You get a wood close to the jack, and you just want to get the next wood even closer."

"If you don't believe me, let's go and have a game." We are on the local green ready for battle. As I misjudge the distance and angle of my first delivery, I try to divert his, and the onlookers', attention with a question. "Why is it that so few young people play, and even fewer would want to associate themselves with the game?"

"That's not true," replies Sanders. "More and more kids are playing. I mean, I'm the kind of guy to raise the profile of the sport and encourage different people to play. Once they try it, they're hooked."

"Really?" I casually retrieve my wood from the adjacent green. "Yeah," he says. "I've took gangsters out that I know who wouldn't dream of going near a bowling green to spoil their street cred sort of thing. But after a game, they're begging me to take them down again."

Torquay's meanest gangsters playing bowls. Mr Tarantino should know about this. So is Griff Sanders entirely blameless for his current predicament?

"No, it's true, I've had warnings in the past. Like the time I said `fuck' for playing a bad shot and a woman complained. Or when I pretended to be drunk during a tournament - I was only joking though. Anyway, I apologised to the committee after the incident. But as far as calling John Smerdon a tosser, though, there's no way on this earth that I'm going to say sorry."