"I am a Norfolk man and Glory in being so." Horatio Nelson

Troubled times for the sport we love

It is unbelievable how quickly the short mat bowls landscape has changed in such a short time. One only has to look back to the first week of March when the Bure League Triples, Pairs and Singles Finals nights were all played over three evenings to now when the sport we love is just a memory. This week saw the government announce that the restrictions will be further eased on the 4th July with pubs, restaurants and hotels able to open and of course Premier League football is back, although without any spectators allowed in the stadiums. But for short mat bowlers there is still uncertainty as to when the sport will be played again. The current guidance issued on the GOV.COM website states that “The government strongly advises against community centres opening for indoor fitness and sport activity.” Currently the Norfolk CSMBA is unable to access their regular venue, the Hingham Sports and Social Club, to check their equipment and food supplies stored there let alone envisage playing short mat bowls.

The Short Mat Bowlers Tour made their big decision early on in the Coronavirus saga when they announced the cancellation of all their entire 2020-21 season. This must have been painful for an organisation that has provided popular events across several countries and built a loyal following of bowlers. They have however given themselves the option on holding a smaller one-off event on the 13th & 14th Feb should the situation drastically improve.

The ESMBA were forced to postpone both the National Championships and the closing stages of the I.C.C event and made a decision to re-arrange them in September. Now that we are into July there must be grave doubts if an event like the National Fours Final, when players and spectators would be jam packed into Melton Mowbray Indoor Bowls Club, could possibly take place while social distancing measures are still in operation. Many players I am sure will have already transferred hotel bookings from their original dates to the new dates in September but will now be wondering when the National Body will be forced to announce a further delay.

The Coronavirus crisis also meant the temporary closure of Potter’s 5 Star Resort at Hopton-on-Sea on the Norfolk coast. The first big short mat bowls event to fall victim was Potter’s Annual East Coast Triples & Pairs Week in May organised for many years by Teresa & Selwyn Goldsmith. The bookings for this event were at an all-time high but the majority of entrants were happy to transfer their bookings to the new date in May 2021. The Potter’s Cup Weekend in September was set to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the popular tournament launched by Teresa and Selwyn but at the moment Potters are unable to confirm whether or not it can take place. The continued inability of Potter’s Resort to operate as normal under current restrictions has led to the company having to reluctantly have to consider some staff redundancies. Potter’s recent statement said “Clearly, our business, alongside theatres, restaurants, gyms and arenas, all with usually many people enjoying time together in these large shared spaces, is majorly impacted by the current restrictions.” One piece of good news from Potters came yesterday though as they announced a partial reopening of Potters Resort on July 17th with a maximum of 300 guests on site instead of the usual 800. For the summer season they will be operating a brand new and unique offering using 50 of their large, south facing hotel rooms and converting them into South Terrace Hospitality Suites. The Potters TV team will be live streaming comedy, music and fun into the suites with live music sets through evening meals.  

A couple of weeks ago the latest edition of Bob Weafer’s Indoor Bowler magazine dropped through letterboxes with the sad news that, after 27 years, this will be the last ever printed edition of our sports only magazine. Bob has done a wonderful job keeping this magazine in print in a sport where so many seem to shy away from publicity. You might almost think on occasion that many in the sport want to keep it a secret. The good news is that for the present Bob Weafer intends to continue the magazine as an on-line only publication. In the last ever printed edition Bob Weafer mused that when he originally got involved with Short Mat Bowls in 1984, and joined the ESMBA Committee, he envisaged a much bigger and brighter future for the sport. His opinion is that “small minded parochial and power grabbing people ended up running short mat at various times” and stated that “I have been surprised that we have not had a breakaway movement and another National Association, as some other sports have them.”

Craig Burgess of SMPT fame took to social media to say that during the current time his idea, raised five years ago, to introduce an Inter Zone Championship in England should be seriously considered for the 2021-22 season. At that time he talked about where England have finished in the British Isles Championships and said that nothing has changed and results have not improved. Craig’s post resulted in comments from several well known figures in short mat bowls. Suzanne Gunter of Northants commented that “something has got to happen or it’s going to die” while Ron Bootsey thought that for the next couple of years, due to the virus, short mat will only be roll-up sessions. Robin Armstrong replied to this by saying that “if all we have got for two years is village hall bowls there will be no players left as they will go and do something else.” Ron Bootsey also referred to out door bowls only allowing two per rink and saying that we could only run pairs or single type comps if we are to keep social distancing and that this would “kill the ICC and our own comps.” Craig Burgess then replied saying that “this could be the nail in the coffin for the ICC” and that team comps are out for a time to come. Josh Hale, referring I assume to Craig’s suggestion, said “I think anyone who is willing to put ideas forward should be commended and we’ve seen new ideas go with the SMPT which is by far the best supported bowls organisation I’ve seen.” Alan Evans replied to Craig Burgess with the advice “just concentrate on the SMPT mate” and said that “Personally I don’t think any amount of changes will save the ICC, or the ESMBA for that matter.”  

Certainly there is much pessimism as to the future of short mat bowls. I know that many of our senior bowlers in Norfolk are greatly missing their fortnightly Over 60’s Squad Days at Hingham when 60 to 70 of them get together to play on ten mats. These squad days are not just about bowls, they are also about vital social interaction for many that live alone. The sooner it is safe for these type of events to resume the better for all. One can only hope that the measures taken by the government will get us to this stage before too long in the future.

As to the coming winter season it must still remain in serious doubt as to if local leagues in Norfolk will be able to function. Many of our teams play in two mat venues where it would not seem feasible for the twenty-four players plus some spouses and partners to meet without breaking current regulations. If the season has to be abandoned a major fear is that some clubs will simply disappear as their members find other interests and drift away from the sport. Derek Barley of the Waveney League, which consists of both Suffolk and Norfolk teams, has already spoken to me of his fears for the future if the 2020/21 season is not able to take place. We must try to remain optimistic though as it would be a crying shame if short mat bowls suffers a major downturn because of this terrible Covid-19 disease.

kent 2 RS22

Norfolk Over 60's in action against Kent Invictus at Hingham, how long before we see this again is the question