Bowls: Title ambition whets appetite for fizz and chips

In the arena of bowls, Greg Harlow's taste for success extends to celebrating tournament victories with the national dish washed down by a bottle of bubbly. But, he tells Mike Rowbottom, he is hungrier still to land the world championship
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The Independent Online

Whatever else Greg Harlow achieves in his bowls career, and the 38-year-old pride of the Ely club has done well enough so far having established himself as the world No l last February,he is always likely to be associated with one particular phrase: Fish and chips and champagne.

In November, having become the only player to win the same ranking tournament on the World Bowls Tour three years on the trot - the International Open at Ponds Forge in Sheffield - he announced his intention to celebrate with the aforementioned food-and-drink combination. "About a thousand people have asked me since if I did have it, and the answer is yes," Harlow said, before explaining the origins of his unusual taste.

"The first year I won at Ponds Forge my family and friends said we would celebrate when we got back home, and after I had done the usual bit with the sponsors I was given a couple of bottles of champagne that were left over. On the way back home we were really hungry - we hadn't eaten anything. And so we got some fish and chips from our local chippy to go with the champagne.

"When I won it the second time, my mum said it had got to be fish and chips and champagne again. So by the time I won it for the third year there was no question. It was the done thing."

Harlow has been a world-ranked player for the last 10 years, but it was only last season that he broke through to the top 10, by reaching the top position. It is an elevation that he maintains has less to do with a startling breakthrough than an improved consistency.

"In previous years I would do well in a couple of ranking tournaments, but then I would go out in a couple of first rounds, which means you don't get rankings points," he said. "Last season was the first time I gained points in all four of the ranking tournaments, I made two finals, and two quarter-finals.

"In terms of seeding, there's not much difference in being world No 1 or world No 4. But there is the thrill of being top of the list. I didn't know I was top until the last match of the last ranking event. If David Gourlay had won it, I would have been second, but he lost."

Harlow, however, remains in search of the victory that would effectively set the seal on his career. "If I could be ranked world No 3 but win the world title, I would rather have that," he said.

This month he will seek to add that final honour to his CV as he contests the singles at the World Indoor Championships, which got under way yesterday at their recently established Norfolk venue in Hopton-On-Sea, within the sedately Hi-De-Hi! environs of the Potters holiday resort.

"I love the place," said Harlow, whose first singles match is scheduled for Thursday after the men's and women's pairs have been completed. "But in recent years it has just not been a happy hunting ground for me, until last year." As 14th seed, his achievement in reaching the final was outstanding. But unfortunately for Harlow, his mate from Fakenham in Norfolk, Mervyn King, produced an even more startling performance, winning the title despite being unseeded.

"Mervyn is my oldest friend on the circuit," Harlow said. " We've played each other many times, and each won many times. So for us both to make the final was nice in a way. It was a case of, 'If I don't win it, mate, you will'. And if it couldn't have been me, he would be the next one I would want to win it."

King, who prefers to supplement his income with his lon-standing job as a pest controller rather than establishing himself in the bowls business as Harlow has, earned £38,000 prize-money for his achievement, a nice but hardly life-changing amount. However, the newly established world champion also received the honour of having a race at his local racecourse named after him - the Mervyn King Chase - and of seeing his local council rename a street in his honour - Mervyn King Close. It is as close as you can get to superstardom in the relatively unspoilt sport of bowls.

Harlow reacted conservatively to the suggestion that Ely might yet designate itself a Greg Harlow Avenue. "That would be very nice," he said. "But I can't see it happening." By his own estimate, Harlow has around another five years to maximise talents which, unlike most of his fellow competitors, he chooses to employ solely indoors.

"In terms of a career, bowls is a lot like golf," he said. " You can play from the age of nine to 90. But most people find their best form in the late twenties, through the thirties and in the early forties. Players tend to lose their edge at 42, 43. Being realistic, I hope to be in the top 16 for another five years. But I've played since the age of 11 - both my parents have played at county level - and I will carry on playing in years to come. Why is it that the edge blunts? I don't really know. Perhaps it's a little bit of the hand-to-eye coordination that goes. But there's only one guy of 50 or more in the top 16."

Harlow, who has plied his trade as a plasterer in the past, now works as a sales manager in the bowling equipment firm owned by the former three-times world indoor champion Richard Corsie, whose own early employment, famously, consisted of delivering the mail. His position takes him to bowling centres all over England and Wales in his Vauxhall Vectra - no baby Bentleys in this sport - and he finds, inevitably, that his recent elevation in status gives him a far better rub of the green.

"The better you do in tournaments, the better you do when you walk through the shop door," he said. "Being world No 1 is a help, but what really makes the difference is whether they recognise you off the TV."

Another world championship performance of the kind he produced last year for the BBC cameras should see those bowling outlets becoming even more biased in Harlow's favour.