Almanack: Super ends and tacky grips

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The Independent Online
'LEAMINGTON Madness]' screamed the sign in the centre of the marquee. Several things spring to mind when you think of Leamington: Georgian architecture, healthful spa waters, ornamental gardens - but lunacy is not one of them.

'Check these prices]' the sign also said, and below were displayed bargain offers for Jack High Super Grip, Grippo, and Wilgrip, 'the tackiest non- slip grip available'. If you want credibility at Victoria Park, Leamington Spa, home of the English Women's Bowling Association National Championships, you've got to get a grip.

Massed bowlers are an extraordinary sight. White pudding-bowl hats, sensible pleated skirts, and blazers emblazoned with badges, crests and medals. The total outfit is known as Full Cream.

Norma Hazzledine, the president of the EWBA, wears a chain of office that would not disgrace the Lady Mayoress of a prosperous Midlands municipality. Why all the gear, Norma? 'It's practical,' she said. 'If you're standing in the hot sun for three hours you need some protection on your head.' A brand of hat has been named in Mrs Hazzledine's honour: The Uncrushable Norma retails at pounds 17.95 in the equipment marquee. 'The skirts aren't short,' she goes on. 'Some of the ladies are, erm, fuller figured, so you wouldn't want shorter skirts. And the hat is a great leveller. It covers up grey hair.'

Necessary, such concealment, in a sport which boasts that you have just as good a chance of becoming champion at 17 as you do at 70. Most of the competitors at Victoria Park last Thursday inclined towards the latter end of the time-span, and a good number of the spectators were older still. But they were lively, and noisy, and thirsty: the stall dispensing free nips of the sponsoring firm's sherry was under siege all afternoon. They were numerous, too - around 3,000 visitors a day. A capacity crowd, in fact. But the venue is growing, and there are ambitious plans for redevelopment in time for the 1996 World Championships.

Thursday's business, though, was national. Almanack watched a first-round singles match between two of Britain's best young players: Catherine Anton and Lisa Francis. Four bowls each, first to 21 wins. Twenty-nine-year-old Anton, who flies to Canada next week to play for England in the Commonwealth Games, made a good start and at one stage led 12-9. But Francis, 21, the British junior champion, fought back and took the match amid high drama with a maximum score in the final end.

Anton was generous in defeat, a common characteristic among bowlers. Even lesser players who, in Norma Hazzledine's words, 'have dreamt all their lives of coming to Leamington', and who have battled through 14 or 15 qualifying matches to realise that ambition, faced first-round exits with good grace, handshakes, jokes. It's a nice sport.

Norma reckons it's more than that. Norma says that the national mood is swinging round to her sport, that John Major and the Duke of Edinburgh have appealed for a return to 'team sports with codes of dress'. Cripes. Tomorrow belongs to bowls. Better take in some lessons. Gwyn John, the National Director of Coaching, was giving masterclasses on the pavilion green. 'Your left foot is coming across the line,' he told one competitor as they studied a video playback. 'It's all about the speed of the arm.'

Francis didn't need any advice. She polished off her second-round opponent with an impressively calm performance. Her supporters were less composed. 'Oh no,' groaned her fiance, Andy Smith, as the match ended. 'Another sleepless night for the bag-carrier.' Lisa and her opponent shook hands, all smiles. Back in the pavilion, President Norma looked on approvingly. 'It looks polite,' she observed, eyes twinkling under her uncrushable brim. 'But there's blood all over the greens out there.'

(Photograph omitted)