The Hastings Annual Mixed Open Bowls Tournament runs five days next week, Monday to Saturday. There are men’s singles, ladies’ singles, men’s pairs, ladies’ pairs and open triples – open , that is, to any combination of men and women.

The men’s event has been held annually, save in some wartime years, since 1911, and used to be as much a fixture of the Hastings sporting calendar as the end-of-season cricket festival. “As a child I knew nothing about bowls”, says current committee member Penny Kenward, who is now ladies captain of the Fairlight club, “but I knew about the Tournament”. At its height in the 1930s and again in the years immediately following World War II upwards of 600 bowlers from all over the country, all male, would descend upon the town, and more specifically the White Rock bowling greens, for two weeks of competition.

In more recent decades the town’s female bowlers organised their own ladies events alongside, and in 2003, as a result of dwindling numbers on both sides, the Tournament became mixed sex. But, other than in triples, the contests remain strictly segregated.

There is a uni-sex flavour to the current Tournament regulations, in particular the dress code. Competitors are enjoined to wear “Smart Dress: White above and Grey below the waist” for rounds before the finals, for which “Whites below the waist” are required. (Our picture shows, as confirmation, the 2015 finalists of both sexes with their respective trophies). The Ladies committee members whom I met also impressed upon me the appointment for the first time last year of a lady umpire Penny Spillane.

But what about a truly mixed competition – a singles or pairs championship in which women might compete directly against men? That notion has no takers amongst my

female interlocutors. They deny that men play to a consistently higher standard, pointing to the success of an all-ladies trio in reaching the triples finals last year. But although women, equipped on average with smaller hands and therefore wielding marginally smaller and lighter woods, might suffer a slight disadvantage on that account, the objections they put up have a different basis.

Men play differently”, says Sandra Page of the White Rock club who was a finalist in the Ladies’ Pairs last year. “In general they tend to go for more complicated manoeuvres – they like to examine the head [the cluster of woods already delivered around the jack] and work out the knock-on effect if a particular wood is bowled against another. They play more tactically”. Then she acknowledges that there are women who adopt this style too.

But Penny Kenward has a similar view. “Women are less inclined to tactics”, she concurs . “Most just like to bowl their woods with accuracy.”

Is this a difference in competitiveness? Neither Sandra nor Penny think so. On the contrary both say they like to play to win. But Sandra does feel that a greater proportion of men play more aggressively – they are more inclined to play ‘running’ or ‘firing’ shots with the aim of disrupting the head or taking their opponents’ shots out.

So the ladies will keep their Tournament contests separate, it seems, for as long as they can keep attracting sufficient numbers. With this aim the ladies’ prize money has been increased this year, and participation numbers are up a little, I am told – though this may be because other local tournaments are failing. Bexhill have dropped their ladies championships and offer open competition for men only. Other neighbouring clubs like New Romney, Peasmarsh and Staplecross have dropped their open events altogether.

It would however be very premature to pronounce that bowling is a dying pastime. It will always attract a higher age range than more physically demanding sports, and demographic trends towards an ageing population should run in its favour. Will generational changes in relations between the sexes bring about a truly mixed Tournament sooner or later? I predict so, but time will tell. In the meantime we wish both men and ladies good competition – and good weather – next week.

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