Young bowlers strike out in search of fame

Greg Wood on a sport determined to fashion a new image for itself
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The Independent Online
About six million Britons go tenpin bowling on a regular basis. It is one of the few sports at which we can still claim to be a world power, and the local Bowlarama is now almost as familiar an urban accessory as the parking meter. Yet if you asked 100 people to name a famous tenpin bowler the best that any of them could do would probably be Fred Flintstone.

This is a shame, because bowling has come a long way since Fred was throwing his uneven lump of granite. Among the contestants at the European Youth Championships yesterday, smooth, marbled urethane, with precision-drilled holes for tender young fingers was the material of choice, and most competitors had at least six balls to hand, to adjust to changes in the lane conditions.

"To get to the top you need a perfect swing, balance and head position," John Williams, Britain's leading coach, said. "Also, you need to understand how lanes react, and they all react differently. They will be affected by ball roll, the atmospheric conditions and the number and weight of balls thrown."

Nor is it advisable to simply aim straight at the front pin, since this tends to leave the nightmare 7-10 split of the far left and right corners, which is all but impossible to convert to a spare with the second ball. Instead, the bowlers impart spin which causes a last-second swerve into the "pocket", the space between the first two rows of pins, and more often than not results in a strike.

Few outside the bowling community, not least those in the sporting media, fully appreciate the degree of skill involved. The perception of being little more than a parlour game is one which snooker and, to a lesser extent, darts have managed to shake off, allowing entry to the lucrative world of sponsorship and television. Bowling, though, for all the investment in gleaming new centres, still struggles beneath a downmarket image.

This is ironic, since it is far more family-oriented than snooker or darts. "Children can play from the age of four," Fran Dee, president of the National Association of Youth Bowling Clubs, said, "and you'll often find that their parents and grandparents are also bowlers. If we still had the 1960s atmosphere, all these families wouldn't keep coming back. But it's a sport, not just a leisure activity - there's a lot of physical and mental skill."

Dee is one of those foundation stones of so-called minority sports, an unpaid evangelist whose enthusiasm and dedication has grown with each of the 26 years she has been involved with the junior game. Do not, however, refer to the lane as an alley, or she will appear ready to beat you about the head with one of the skittles, and then to do so again for calling it a skittle rather than a pin. Alleys are seedy, and skittles belong in pubs.

As a response to the public image of bowlers as middle-aged and spreading, you could do no better than Sami Puiras from Finland, the winner of the Boys' Individual Championship by 15 pins - with 5,013 to the 4,998 of Sweden's Peter Westin. A frail, almost skeletally lean figure with John Lennon specs, Puiras's exterior hides a mental toughness of which any professional sportsman would be proud.

After five frames of the final game Puiras seemed to be faltering. Westin even edged into a slender lead, but then the Finn produced a devastating response - seven consecutive strikes, delivered in the face of enormous pressure. Westin's first ball in the ninth frame took out all but the No. 10 pin, but that solitary survivor proved to be the difference between victory and defeat.

Puiras's poise faltered just once during the day, in the first game. After opening with 11 strikes he was just one more away from bowling's equivalent of the 147 break, a perfect 300-point game. "My knees went wobbly and my hands were shaking," he said, "and I let the ball go a little too soon." He came up three pins short, on 297.

In the girls' event, Gemma Burden from Weston-super-Mare, further demonstrated England's bowling strength, with both the boys and girls teams having already won gold medals, but on every lane the competitors bowled with exceptional skill and consistency.

Amid the constant smash and tumble of strikes and spares, however, there was one note of reassurance for anyone who has ever held a bowling ball. Occasionally, very, very occasionally, one of them will still bowl it straight down the gutter.