Bowls: Gillett's whole new bowls game

Adam Szreter samples the delights of Llanelli to see the new master of the green get ready for his world party
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The Independent Online
"THAT'S close, that's close, that's awful close - ooooooh ... so close!" The blue rinse and wrinkly brigade rolled up in their numbers at Selwyn Samuel Centre, Llanelli, last week to cheer on the Welsh champion, Mark Anstey, as he tried to take the wind out of the sails of Les "Gale Force" Gillett, the nearest the world of bowls will probably ever come to an overnight sensation.

Gillett, 27, rose to prominence in October when he won the Bupa International Open as a qualifier, defeating four world champions along the way. Despite its name it was the first time the tournament - second only to the world championships in status - had thrown open its doors to anyone outside the world's elite and Gillett took full advantage. In the quarter-finals he beat the world champion, Hugh Duff, in straight sets, and they will come face to face again in the first round of the World Indoor Championships in Preston, which begin tomorrow with the pairs competition.

Gillett, originally from Gloucestershire but now working for an engineering firm in Banbury, has been around the bowls scene for some years but without the TV exposure needed to establish himself. He was the England under- 25 champion in 1993, and two years later reached the final of the national outdoor championships as well as winning the British fours alongside Tony Allcock. He even won his first England outdoor cap last summer, but only now can he consider packing in the day job to concentrate full-time on the sport.

Bowls has slipped back since its brief heyday in the early Eighties when it looked like being the next snooker as far as television interest was concerned, but the idea of a qualifying tournament for the International Open is part of a concerted attempt on the part of the players to reinvigorate their sport. "We didn't feel the people running the game were really going in the right direction," said John Price, the 1990 world champion from Swansea, who today expects to be named as chairman of the fledgling Professional Bowls Association, in succession to the three-times world champion Richard Corsie.

The PBA is based on the model of the European golf tour, and to a lesser extent on snooker, and that is where the idea for a qualifying tournament sprang from. "What happened before was that you'd have to win your national singles to get through," Price explained, "and if you wanted to get into a qualifier for the world championships the national selectors would have to pick you. We felt that was wrong, that it should be open to anybody with a bowls background."

Gillett, of course, took full advantage of the PBA's initiative, beating Price himself in the semi-final. "I'd never even been to the Guild Hall [in Preston]," said Gillett. "When I walked in with my dad on the Saturday evening I was in awe. I got on the green to have a practice and I couldn't bowl a wood, I was so shot away with what was coming up and being on TV. It took me until the Tuesday morning before my first-round match to settle down.

"After I'd won I was approached by sponsors and invited as guest of honour to all kinds of events, but the icing on the cake was being invited to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. It was fantastic. You have bodyguards around you, you're pushed into cars, people asking for your autograph and getting mobbed when you went outside. And they knew who you were as well, which was nice."

Gillett did just enough to overcome Anstey's challenge in the Welsh Masters at Llanelli, but in the quarter-finals Price exacted a measure of revenge. Looking ahead to this week, Gillett said: "I want to do well in the world championships obviously, and if I do I'll see what happens, whether I pack up work or whatever. But if you don't keep winning you can't afford to do it, and it's a hell of a first-round draw for me."

As a spectator sport, bowls falls roughly in between angling and county cricket. Even the players say so. "I can't watch a game of bowls because it's boring unless it's two top-class players," says Gillett. "I really enjoy playing the game. I get a great buzz from it, but it's very hard to sit and watch.

"The game needs a good kick up the backside, it really does. It needs some pizzazz, a bit of fun, a bit of music. Not while the guys are actually playing, but before the matches. Coloured shirts are fine but why not coloured trousers or coloured bowls? And some people on the green are so serious. I always try to smile and have a joke with people while I'm playing." Whether Gillett will still be smiling next week remains to be seen, but at least bowls will have profited from his impact.