The success of the Warwick and Worcester county side in the BCGBA Endsleigh Insurance county Championship and the individual successes their players are currently enjoying begs me to ask, are they too good for anyone else?
The county side are going for five wins in a row and seven in ten years. The first of these successes was in 2007 and that was the first win since 1989 and only the third since 1950. W&W are now fourth on the list of winners, granted some distance behind Lancashire who hold the most wins since 1950.
Before 1980 Lancashire claimed seventeen wins in thirty years and was thought to be too big so Gtr Manchester, Merseyside and North Lancs & Fylde were informed. Since then Lancashire have enjoyed two wins and three runners-up years. Of the new associations, Gtr Manchester have won the competition eight times and eight runners-up performances have been achieved by the three associations. So if the split had not occurred Lancashire may have continued to enjoy greater success but would they be in a position to win the competition this year, or the next?
This game was developed and nurtured around Bolton, Chorley and Wigan and this led to the formation of the professional game. The combination of this professional game, or the Panel as it is known, a tough competition circuit and high class league drove standards in the North West and yet they are shadows of what they once were. With respect to the leagues based around Preston, Chorley, Wirral, Wigan and Greater Manchester the standard of league bowling in the North West has declined by a huge amount. Even in the areas I have mentioned the decline has been as great if not greater. The best junior in recent years in the North West has been Wayne Ditchfield and he has developed into one of the best seniors in the game. To play in the best league he can Wayne has to travel over the Pennines to Lower Hopton in the Mirfield League.
The formation the Manchester Premier League briefly gave success again to the North West with eight wins in ten years, Cheshire’s first wins in nearly thirty years for example. That league has also seen a decline in playing standards. Whether it be a lack of ambition or willingness to travel during the week (future generation may not believe it was once possible to travel at speeds above 50mph on the M6 & M60) the league has shrunk to a number of clubs fierce in their determination to raise the standard of play in the league again. The Cheshire Premier League though initially successful has now ceased after a couple of seasons. The Welsh premier league has been a success and bowls in Wales is amongst the best run and funded.
What about other counties though. Yorkshire, though not what they were, still depend on the Mirfield league for the basis of their county side and they remain the next best side after Warwick and Worcester. Yet for all their ability they have only one success since 1998. This was also when they had two teams in the Manchester Premier League. They remain the team to be beat in the Junior County Championship largely due to their phenomenal coaching set-up though, through no fault of theirs, this competition has struggled in recent years. Many counties struggle to find twenty-four players to play in it and Cheshire had to withdraw from the competition for a couple of seasons. Cheshire have developed a number of successful juniors, with Tom Vickers the reigning British Senior Champion but they and many other counties have struggled to find volunteers to help with their juniors as well as find juniors to play.
The best leagues seem to attract players with players from outside their area. The Mirfield league attracts players from outside the Yorkshire boundaries, such as Wayne, the Welsh Premier has many English speakers performing each week as is a tough standard which has improved the standard of bowls in the area. At times much to Warwick and Worcester concern, players have crossed the border to play in their league. This crossing of the border will make the leagues more competitive.
The work done both at junior and senior level in the midlands and to my mind more importantly the quality of the league bowling means they are, for at least the short term, in a position the claim more national success. During the last bank holiday weekend, W&W players claimed four individual competitions, spread across the country. This is important as if you can dominate competitions outside your own area then the rest of the bowling world is in trouble. What they have been able to do is develop a young group of players, educate then in how to play the game at the top level and give them a league structure which challenges them every week.
Has the happened in any others areas, or more importantly could it happen? In all likelihood no, the coaching structure is not there in most areas and certainly the quality of bowls in most leagues could not support it. Quite often if you see a bowler outside their area you could ask if they were lost or on holiday.
This seasons may see a challenge for Warwick and Worcester as they are in a group with North Midlands. This may prove to be a big challenge for them as their neighbours have the greens to challenge them. Even if they do not win the county championship this season they will start as favourites next season and in the seasons beyond. Yet the biggest challenge could be the motivation to improve their own game as in bowls, like most sports, you have to keep trying to improve. If you stand still you actually go backwards. The stresses and strains of modern day life may intervene but the structure and personalities in Warwick & Worcester would make you think the motivation will remain. Its up to the rest of the bowling world to learn from it and improve the standards in their area