my own goal

The 39-year-old world outdoor bowls champion is one of the leading contenders at the world indoor championships in Preston this week. The winner of 13 world titles, he has come a long way since this formative experience in Australia in 1978 . . .
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The Independent Online
I'VE ALWAYS believed that there are two types of sportsmen - the ones with natural ability and those who have acquired it. I suppose I've always regarded myself as one of the former, and I think it was partly this belief that was my undoing in one of my first big tournaments.

I was 23 and had not even won a world title when I was invited to Melbourne to play in a tournament called the Jack High. We'd only just started the televising of bowls in this country, and this was Australia's first real attempt at it. I was a bit of a novelty being so young. I was there to add a bit of unusual flavour.

In those days bowls players tended to be much older, especially in Australia where there was such a big choice of outdoor sports. And the other thing I had not appreciated was what a huge following bowls has there. In New South Wales alone there are more bowls players than in all of Britain.

It was to my great surprise that I managed to reach the final. There I had to play a chap called Kenny Williams, a legend in Australian bowls, and there was me, just a greenhorn from Britain. Again, I don't think I fully understood the significance of the occasion.

So there we were, at the Beaumaris club in Melbourne, and I'd got myself into a 20-14 lead, one shot away from victory. I'd done it, I felt, entirely through natural ability. I was feeling blase, oblivious to everything, certainly to Kenny Williams' achievements and the respect in which he was held. And then I did something I shouldn't have done.

The tournament was sponsored by Mazda, and the first prize was a new Mazda car, which was on its stand to the side of the green where everyone could see it. And that's when I made my biggest mistake. I looked across at the car.

I can't really tell you what happened next. My mind just wandered off. Seeing the car, I was like a child in a toy department. As far as the match was concerned I just disappeared. All I know is that I lost 21-20. I've never really come to terms with this experience, other than to hope to turn it to my advantage later in my career - and a few years ago that's exactly what happened.

This was the outdoor world championships of 1992. These only take place once every four years. Each country selects just one player, and I'd been chosen for England even though David Bryant was the title-holder from 1988. So I felt a big responsibility.

I got through to the final, where I was playing Richard Corsie of Scotland. This time it was the first to 25 shots, and it had got to the point where I was on the brink of defeat. Richard was leading about 23-14. I'd tried everything, and nothing was coming off. But suddenly it all came to me, as if in a flashback, that this was an almost exact reversal of the position in Australia all those years previously.

So I wondered whether I could set myself a new goal, to see if I could get out of this predicament and capture something I'd almost lost just as I'd lost something I'd nearly won. It was like a psychological tool, and the result was that I beat Corsie and won the title.

That's the thing with a game like bowls or, say, snooker. There is physical ability, of course, but a higher proportion of mental ability than you find in other sports. People think you're playing your opponent when really you are playing yourself.