Pretender to the crown

IN 1998, Griff Sanders, a 25 year-old painter and labourer from Torquay, was banned from taking part in outdoor bowls competitions for ten years by the Devon County Bowling Association (DCBA). His crime was, the association said, bringing the game into disrepute by writing on his scorecard that a fellow player, John Smerdon, was "a tosser".

Sanders had already managed to get on the wrong side of the bowling establishment on numerous occasions. His pre-ban crimes included swearing in front of ladies, running unnecessarily, not wearing a tie, wearing the wrong coloured socks, pretending to be drunk, telling a senior player that he was "crap" and eating fish and chips during a game - none of which would have done him much good when the members of the DCBA were deliberating over the length of his ban. It was also unfortunate that Smerdon - the man he had so heinously abused in biro - happened to be the DCBA’s honorary chairman.

With Sanders well-and-truly outlawed, it was hoped that the world of bowls could return to sedate normality, but it was not to be. First the press got hold of the story and dubbed Sanders "The Bad Boy of British Bowls", comparing him to other sporting hellraisers such as John McEnroe and Paul Gascoigne. And then the British film industry got involved.

When the director and former TV comic Mel Smith got wind of the Sanders saga he decided that it had all the essential ingredients of a great biopic. He took Sanders out for dinner at the swanky L’Etoile restaurant in London, told him what he had in mind and had little difficulty securing his co-operation.

Five years on, and Smith’s film, Blackball, is about to be released in cinemas throughout the UK. Paul Kaye (aka Dennis Pennis) plays Sanders with a Westcountry drawl that, by all accounts, isn’t too far off the original, James Cromwell does a wonderfully snooty turn as Smerdon and there’s also a cameo from Johnny Vegas, who gets to deliver some choice lines as Sanders’s salt-of-the-earth best mate.

The film uses Sanders’s ten year ban as its jumping off point, but then enters a bizarre parallel universe in which an American sports agent called Rick Schwartz (Vince Vaughan) appears outside Sanders’s council house one morning, impresses him with a flash car and some quick-talking and then goes about turning him into a megastar by way of some canny press manipulation, a Diet Coke ad and an appearance at the MTV awards.

In the film, Schwartz even manages to get Sanders’s ban overturned so that he can do battle with two world-beating Australian bowlers in a (heavily sponsored) showdown broadcast live on primetime TV.

This grand finale may seem far-fetched, but in fact it isn’t a million miles away from the truth. In 1999, perhaps having considered the coverage and lucrative sponsorship deals that a player like Sanders might attract, the English Bowling Association decided that he should be allowed to appeal against his sentence, and the by-then mythical ten-year ban was reduced to a two-year probationary period.

This U-turn has been great for Sanders’s bowling - he recently reached the last eight of the National Express EBA pairs championship at Worthing - but not so great for his bad boy reputation. After all, "two years’ probation" doesn’t have quite the same elicit ring to it as "ten-year ban". And given that his most serious recent transgression was wearing a non-regulation baseball cap during a match (which he removed without a fuss when asked to do so) perhaps it is time for the bowling world to look elsewhere for an enfant terrible.

So in a bid to find the new "Bad Boy of British Bowls", I made some enquiries and was put in touch with Alex Hurry, a 25-year-old from Edinburgh with an impressive string of competition wins to his name.

On paper, Hurry is a badder boy than Sanders ever was. To date he’s been banned from two bowling clubs in the capital - Gorgie Mills in 1996, where the committee refused to renew his membership for five years before he gave up trying to reapply, and Bainfield Indoor Bowling Club in 1999, where he was suspended for nine months. Both of the incidents that led to his dismissal involved physical violence or the threat of it, although Hurry is quick to point out that in both cases he was the injured party. Still, there’s something appealingly gritty about his story - if Mel Smith was the right man to capture the whimsical humour of Griff Sanders’s slightly ridiculous predicament on film, Alex Hurry should probably get Irvine Welsh to write his official biography when the time comes.

Hurry certainly looks the part when I meet him at 10:30am at the UGC cinema at Fountain Park to watch an advance screening of Blackball. He’s a big guy with thick stubble and a slight swagger, and he’s trying to recover from a hangover with the help of a can of Strongbow. He chuckles all the way through the film and thinks that most bowls players will also see the funny side of it, although he reckons it’s a bit far-fetched in places.

"I don’t think a bowler could ever become that popular in real life," he says afterwards. "Even the meanest bowler would never become a sporting hero or a celebrity - the sport has too much stigma attached to it. People think it’s an old man’s game. It’s one of the most participated-in sports in the country, but the image isn’t right."

Not only is bowls extremely popular in Scotland - between four and five percent of the adult population play regularly according to a recent survey carried out by SportScotland - it’s also a sport in which Scottish players have built up a formidable reputation on the world stage. Earlier this year, Tranent’s Alex Marshall won the singles title at the World Indoor Bowls at the Potters Leisure Resort at Hopton-on-Sea in East Anglia, and he and fellow countryman George Sneddon are currently the strongest men’s pairs team in the world, having won the World Championship in Johannesburg in 2000 and then taken gold at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, Northfield Bowling Club in Ayrshire will play host to World Bowls 2004 next year - bowling’s equivalent of the World Cup. If things were going even half as well for Scottish football we’d never hear the end of it.

After our trip to the cinema, Hurry takes me to his new club, Juniper Green, for a pint and "a few ends". I’ve never played bowls before and, predictably, Hurry wipes the floor with me, but it’s fun watching him do it, casually blasting my woods out of the way whenever they end up vaguely close to the jack. Later, in the clubhouse, he tells me about his two bans.

Hurry started playing bowls at Gorgie Mills at the age of ten. His father, Alex Hurry Sr, and his Grandfather, Hugh Wright, had both been players at the club and Hurry describes it as "the place where I grew up". He is still visibly angry when telling the story of his dismissal.

"One of our top players, Alex Marshall, who’s now the world champion, was getting married", he remembers, "but the day of his marriage was also the day when the Edinburgh Top Ten final was to be played, so someone was going to have to take his place. My dad’s name was put forward along with a couple of others. A few of us were talking about it and I got into an argument with a guy called Ian Brown, who’s the Gorgie Mills club champion this year. He said that my dad wasn’t good enough to get in the team, and I argued his case. I stood up to leave - it was all a bit drink-fuelled - and I was punched by a member of the club. I’d rather not say who."

Hurry then describes being shouted at and kicked as his brother and his cousin tried to drag him out of the clubhouse.

"The following day I got a letter saying I had to go for a committee meeting", he continues. "I told them what had happened and they barred me indefinitely but with the right to appeal after a year. So after a year I appealed and for five years they kept the ban going."

Three years later, Hurry was also banned from Bainfield. On this occasion he made the mistake of being a Hibs supporter in a room full of Hearts fans on the day his team drubbed their city rivals 6-2, and celebrating a little too enthusiastically for the likes of some. He remembers going to the bar to get a drink after the game, only to be confronted by three men who threatened to take him outside and stab him.

Hurry reported the incident to the club committee, but when he felt not enough was done about it he called the committee members "a bunch of spineless bastards" and was suspended for nine months as a result.

Stewart Cox, the club secretary at Bainfield, declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding Hurry’s ban, but Ken Reid, the Match Secretary at Gorgie Mills, explained that Hurry wasn’t barred from his club because of his involvement in the fight in the clubhouse but because of the way he spoke to committee members at the inquiry afterwards.

"The reason he was barred was because of his abuse."

Hurry concedes that his tendency to let his temper get the better of him has been the root of most of his problems. "As a younger person I was a bit outspoken and liked the sound of my own voice," he says, "but since I’ve come to Juniper I’ve wised up a wee bit and stuck in more at the bowls. But having been barred from Gorgie Mills and then Bainfield, I’ve had to carry that reputation around with me."

And a bad reputation can do a lot of damage to a young bowler’s career. Just as Griff Sanders’s previous run-ins with the bowling authorities may have had more than a little to do with the severity of his 1998 ban, so Hurry believes his less-than-spotless track record may be preventing him from gaining a place in the Scottish national team.

"In 2000 I was named in the Scottish Bowling Association trial team but with no international series to follow that year, I wasn’t able to play for Scotland", he says. "The following year I wasn’t selected for a trial despite having won my Club Championship and the District Junior Singles title and having qualified for the World Indoor Singles."

"There was even a write-up about it in the Evening News - the headline was ‘Alex is Glaring Absentee from Trial Match’. There are selectors on the SBA committee that choose the teams, and I think you need somebody on your side - somebody to put in a good word for you. Maybe at the moment there’s nobody on my side giving me the push I need to get into the team."

Whether Alex Hurry eventually makes it into the Scotland team or not, the fact remains that bowls needs big personalities in order to grow - just watch bowling ball sales skyrocket after Blackball hits the cinemas this week.

• Blackball is on general release from today