Bowls: The beginners at world's end: Steve Boggan reports from Worthing on the worthy novices trying to make their name in bowls

TEN YEARS ago, Sujit Sopon came across an obscure entry in an encyclopaedia about a rather bizarre game played by people in faraway countries.

It referred to 'bowls', a game of skill in which balls that would not roll in a straight line were aimed at a much smaller ball. The person who got the most big balls nearest to the little one won. 'I thought I would like to try this,' Sopon said. 'So I got Dunlop, our local sports agent, to send off for some bowls. Fortunately, they came with a little instruction booklet called 'In The Groove', but for a while we weren't sure we were playing properly.'

Thus began Thailand's challenge for the 1992 Woolwich World Championships in Worthing. It may not have been a spectacular start, but it typified the sporting spirit that still prevails at an event where the deserving novice can come face to face with the world's finest.

'We didn't have a clue about grass or greens,' Sopon said. 'Line and length were all Greek to us. But we prepared a sort of green that was a bit like a cow pasture and we learned to play.'

Sopon, a property developer, and the other 30 or so players in Thailand are affiliated to the grand-sounding Royal Bangkok Sports Club. In fact, there is nothing grand about the greens. 'The grass is thick in some parts and patchy in others,' Sopon said. 'The paradox is that when we come here and get the chance to play on an even surface, we freeze. Perhaps we would do better if we invited all the other players to our greens.'

The perfect conditions have played havoc the Thais, who are bottom of their singles and fours sections. They finished 27th out of 28 in the pairs and triples.

Sopon, his country's top player, lost 25-2 to Israel's Jeff Rabkin in his first of two singles matches yesterday. His countrymen lost 24-13 to Papua New Guinea in the fours.

This was particularly ignominious given that Papua were without some of their best players because they could not afford the fare. Their top singles player, Peter Pomaleu, dropped out two weeks ago after becoming unemployed.

Twenty-eight countries are taking part in the seventh world championships, four more than at the event in New Zealand four years ago. Among the new contestants are five men from the Cook Islands. Back home, they have just one green on which to play, and they have to share that with the 120 members of the islands' five men's and three women's clubs.

Joseph Akaruru has been their top player in the tournament, winning two of his first four games but losing the other two. 'We don't mind too much,' Taira Arapotea, the team manager, said as Akaruru lost his fifth-round match 25-18 against Duncan Naysmith, of Zambia. 'It is simply a privilege to play against such fine players and to learn.'

As the rain fell remorselessly on the few spectators who sat draped in plastic and rubber in the stands, the men of another tiny team, Norfolk Island, found something more to celebrate than simply taking part.

Barry Wilson, their singles man, had defeated Swaziland's Hayley Abrahams 25-16. Until then, the team had precious little to cheer about. 'This is absolutely marvellous,' their manager, Jack Fraser, a palm seed grower, said. 'We have only 40 to 50 bowlers on the island (most of whom are descended from the Bounty mutineers) so we have done really well.

'We would have been satisfied whatever the result. For us, the most important element is taking part, doing our best and making new friends.'

As his sporting comments came to a close, a ripple of applause and a cheer signalled a rather unusual occurence: a win for Thailand. On Green C, Sujit Sopon stood with his hands in his pockets and an embarrassed smile on his face. He had just chalked up Thailand's first singles win and avenged his team-mates' earlier defeat by beating Papua New Guinea's Rudolph Wild in a thrilling 25-24 encounter worthy of a world championships.

(Photograph omitted)