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David Bryant: Lawn bowler who had few equals on the world stage

The pipe-smoking sportsman won many titles throughout his career and long enjoyed an easy rapport with fellow competitors, fans and media

Kenneth Shenton
Friday 04 September 2020 15:10 BST
The Somerset native was awarded an MBE in 1969, a CBE 11 years later, and in 1986 he was voted Pipe Smoker of the Year
The Somerset native was awarded an MBE in 1969, a CBE 11 years later, and in 1986 he was voted Pipe Smoker of the Year (Alamy)

One of that select but notable band of British sportsmen to achieve truly global recognition, David Bryant has long been thought of as the world’s greatest ever lawn bowler. Amid a level of performance that had few, if any equals, this deceptively laidback, pipe-smoking, rose-growing, bespectacled competitor went on to amass an unmatched array of British, Commonwealth and world titles. Long enjoying an easy rapport with fellow competitors, fans and media, he was later never happier than when deploying his energies in the promotion of the sport.

David John Bryant, who has died aged 88, was the son of an insurance broker and former England international. He was born in the North Somerset town of Clevedon and when a seven-year-old pupil at St Nicholas’ Chantry School, he began his bowls career at the local Promenade Club. At the age of 16, he joined Clevedon Bowls Club at the top of Chapel Hill where his father played. Bryant won the club’s handicap singles title at the first attempt. He soon found that in bowls his poor eyesight would prove no detriment to success – the same could not be said for cricket.

Having successfully completed his national service in the RAF, Bryant then undertook teacher training, first at the College of St Paul and St John in Cheltenham, and then at Redland College in Bristol. In these early years, he managed to juggle his burgeoning bowls career with that of a special needs teacher. Quickly emerging as a distinctive figure on the circuit, Bryant was rarely seen without the obligatory pipe and tobacco, soon supplied by a grateful sponsor. While never a particularly athletic figure, to keep his muscles constantly supple he became a keen student of yoga.

Notable among Bryant’s many achievements are five Commonwealth gold medals. He was a double gold medallist in both the singles and the fours at the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games held in Perth, Australia. He followed this with three further singles gold medals at Edinburgh in 1970, Christchurch in 1974 and Edmonton in 1978. Having claimed the inaugural world outdoor singles title when competing in the Kyeemagh suburb of Sydney in 1966, over the next 22 years, proving a model of consistency, Bryant would go on to win a further two single titles, one triple and one team event. In the world outdoor championships, his final medal tally was 11 in all: five gold, three silver and three bronze.

When competing at the world indoor championships, Bryant won no fewer than nine titles – three singles and, in partnership with Tony Allcock, six pairs titles. On the domestic front, he also helped Somerset regularly win the coveted Middleton Cup, the county also claiming the national championship on 16 occasions. During the 1970s and 1980s, when the BBC staged an annual mini world championship in Worthing, the world’s top eight players competed for the Jack High title. He triumphed nine times in 12 appearances and the event soon became known as the Bryant Benefit.

While the faster greens in Australasia caused trouble for many British players, they held no terrors for him. This was particularly true in the world championship final against Willie Wood, held in New Zealand in February 1988. He was totally outplayed, at one stage trailing 19-5, and in what he always labelled his finest hour, he fought back, a miracle head charge on the last end bringing him a famous 25-22 victory.

He was awarded an MBE in 1969, a CBE 11 years later, and in 1986 he was voted Pipe Smoker of the Year. After his international career ended in the 1990s, Bryant took on the role of president of the Professional Bowls Association, while also making a significant contribution to the development of the World Bowls Tour. After opening a Bristol sports shop, he became increasingly involved in leading overseas bowls tours for those seeking winter sun.

Among his books are Bryant on Bowls – Outdoor & Indoor, and Bowl with Bryant. With David Rhys Jones he co-authored The Game of Bowls, and together with his great friend and playing partner Tony Allcock, he compiled Bowl to Win.

He is survived by his wife, Ruth, and daughters, Jacqueline and Carole.

David Bryant, bowls player, born 27 October 1931, died 26 August 2020

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