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Sunday, 4 August, 2002, 05:11 GMT 06:11 UK

Youth spearhead bowls fightback

By Clive Lindsay
BBC Sport Online in Manchester

Wrinkled tights, cloth caps, even more wrinkled faces, it is an image that lawn bowls is trying hard to consign to its long history.

Young, pretty and from the professional classes, Ellen Alexander is the embodiment of what many hope is a bright new dawn for the sport.

The 23-year-old not only helped win gold with some deadly accurate lead play as part of the successful women's fours in Manchester.

"Bowls needs to lose some of its traditions"
World Bowls chief Gary Smith

But she has played her part in one of the most successful Commonwealth Games for an English bowls team.

And the marketing co-ordinator is at the forefront of a younger generation that could broaden the appeal of her sport.

Before the Games started, former gold medallist Willie Wood bemoaned the loss of thousands of outdoor bowlers and the closure of clubs in a Scottish homeland where bowling greens were once an essential part of every community.

Indeed, although the accuracy of figures from some countries is unreliable, the number of bowlers worldwide has dropped 4% in a year to 690,000.

But the World Bowls Board has drawn up a three-year plan during which it hopes to reverse the trend and find many more like Alexander.

Chief executive Gary Smith told BBC Sport Online: "Bowls needs to lose some of its traditions to be more in tune with the 21st century and players like Ellen are excellent role models for young people."

Innovations like coloured bowls and shorter matches to satisfy television audiences have already hastened the popularity of the indoor game.

But more ingrained traditions like holding women's league matches in midweek afternoons, diminishing the chances of working women, are much harder to break at the grassroots.

Smith's first major task is to unite the often disparate associations for indoor, outdoor, men's and women's.

Bringing those together helped England attract for the first time substantial funding for their assault on the Commonwealth Games - and how it has paid off.

Fitness coach Rex Hazeldine, who helped the Lions rugby squad, plus a psychologist, a nutritionist and warm weather training were financed by a 300,000 cheque that has so far been converted into three pots of gold in Manchester.

"They have trained as hard as any other team"
England team boss Tony Allcock

It had been 30 years since England last won a bowls gold.

World indoor champion Tony Allcock had announced his retirement from the competitive game to concentrate on spearheading the 15-month project designed to change all that.

"You only have to look at the results to see the difference the money has made," he enthused.

"They have trained as hard as any other team in other sports at the Games."

Allcock believes the future could be even more rosy for English bowling, with Alexander not the only bright young thing in the locker room.

But, with China and its many millions poised to join the World Bowls community, many more Ellen Alexanders will be needed to keep England and the other British nations in the future hunt for medals.

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