Nobody ever accused bowling of being a glamour sport. Even in Dubai, a city that has a knack for applying a gloss to everyday things, the game has failed off to shake off its blue-collar, boys-night-out image. You could see this quite clearly at the Dubai International Bowling Centre last week, when the cream of the UAE bowling community met to compete in the finals of a Ramadan tournament. There were big names here, playing for fairly big money. Some of them had represented their country on the global stage. A few could be described as world class. It's a rare thing in Dubai to see this many top-notch bowlers in one place. Yet the tournament had attracted a crowd of maybe 150 fans - and many of these seemed as interested in what was going on at the Big Bite burger bar as the action taking place on the lanes.
As for media covering the event - well, that would be me. The Dubai International Bowling Centre is tucked away on a scruffy side street in Al Mamzar, not far from Century Mall. The centre itself resembles one of the city's less-than-mega shopping malls, except for the enormous bowling pin atop the roof. The playing area consists of 36 lanes extending along a cavernous interior. There are fanciful ball-and-pin stencils on the walls flanking the alleys. Otherwise, the colour scheme is mostly tan.
This unremarkable building, though, serves as an unofficial home base for the UAE national bowling team, a collection of amateur players who have, for a good few years now, been punching above their weight to a remarkable degree. "This is the best-performing team in UAE sports," said a young man named Ahmed Ali Murad in the moments before the tournament began. "But there is no awareness outside the bowling centre. We need awareness."
The responsibility for awareness-raising falls largely on Murad's shoulders. As the UAE team manager, he oversees the day-to-day running of the operation, but also the big-picture stuff, which includes recruiting promising youngsters and shaping the public image of the 10 men who make up the current national team. On both counts, he faces challenges. "I get a lot of interest, but I don't see enough dedication," he said of his efforts to find the UAE's next generation of bowling stars. As for the stars of today - well?
Where bowling has enjoyed the odd brush with trendiness, this has largely been born of the modern appetite for what has been called shabby chic, with all the snarky irony this implies - I'm fashionable because I'm not fashionable, see? So it is you have club kids in the West wearing second-hand bowling shirts and the hideous shoes. In America, the game has attracted a few celebrity players (Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Jeff Bridges and Kim Kardashian are all said to be quite good), but this would appear to be more a matter of Hollywood going downmarket rather than bowling somehow raising its game. In this region, even this level of cool has remained elusive.
"Happy bowling!" the MC cried as the final got under way. There were 32 bowlers competing for Dh121,000 in prizes, which isn't a bad haul for a few nights' work. As the digital scorecards flickered and the lanes lit up, the players polished their balls and fiddled with their elaborate gloves. Surprisingly, nobody wore uniforms, not even national team members. Instead, the dress code tended toward car-wash casual - shapeless collared tees and the kind of baggy trousers you'd throw away if they weren't so comfortable. Nobody looked particularly happy.
As the tournament began, so too did the rumbling and clattering - a sound that remained constant throughout the few hours that the tournament ran, and which was loud enough to leave an auditory imprint that endured for a long time afterwards. Occasionally, a patter of applause could be heard, even the odd gasp of appreciation, but - for the uninitiated at least - it was hard to get a sense of what the fuss might be about. You looked along the monitors and all you could see was an endless array of Xs: strike-strike-strike-strike, strike-strike-strike.
One of the players whose monitor remained surprisingly X-free in the opening stages was that of Hussain al Suwaidi, a lynchpin of the UAE national squad and the top-ranked player in the World Bowling Association's Asia zone. Al Suwaidi is employed by the UAE military. He lives in Sharjah. In the days before the event, he had expressed blithe confidence about his prospects, despite being up against such heavy hitters as Mohammed al Qubaisi, Sayed al Hashemi, Shaker Ali al Hassan, Nayef Oqab and Mahmood al Attar.
"The finals will be very tough," he had said. "But I am sure I will win." The rules of the tournament were straightforward: there would be 10 games, at the end of which the player with the highest aggregate score would get Dh30,000 (Dh20,000 for the runner-up, Dh10,000 for third place and so on down to Dh500 for 17th to 20th). In the first round, al Suwaidi had done well, scoring 232 points. Game two, though, had been a disaster - he'd managed only 155 points, which, in these circles, can comfortably be called rubbish. "My ball broke," al Suwaidi explained afterwards, looking genuinely pained.
A soft-spoken, unassuming 30-yea-old, al Suwaidi represents the bright new face of UAE bowling. Until eight years ago, he had hardly touched a bowling ball (his game was football) but he turned out to be a natural. Five years ago, he was selected for the national team. For the past three years he has been Asia's top-ranked player. While his career record is not the best at the tournament - the "legendary" Mohammed al Qubaisi, a Dubai businessman, has two world champion titles under his belt - al Suwaidi is arguably the player with the steepest upward trajectory.
In the aftermath of his wobbly start, al Suwaidi's relative inexperience threatened to cause him problems. Bowling, like golf, is one of those games in which a bad moment stays with you - no matter how much ground you make up, the gutter shot becomes a part of your permanent record. This fact makes players especially susceptible to the meltdown. Even when things are going well, many bowlers appear to be flirting with hysteria. This tension is part of the game, and its release is part of the game's appeal.
Accordingly, there are all sorts of products teaching players how to keep their heads - one "subliminal recording" repeats affirmations such as, "I am a great bowler". The Handbook of Bowling Psychology is a perennial favourite. Mostly, though, players understand this stuff on an instinctive level. As al Suwaidi put it: "One bad ball can disturb your whole day. You have to be a very cool guy. If you get angry, you will throw again bad and bad and bad and bad."
Broken balls don't come around often, and al Suwaidi appeared to have lost a little of his cool-guy veneer as he prepared for round three. It couldn't have helped that the tournament's revolving lane system had positioned him next to his UAE teammate and arch-rival: the dreaded al Qubaisi. In the minutes before the game began, as the older man sat and stared into space, al Suwaidi roamed up and down alongside the lanes, pausing every now and then to gaze at people's scores.
I am a great bowler... I am a great bowler. When it comes to temperament, bowlers tend toward one of two basic categories. Al Suwaidi was urging his bowls home with jittery, sweeping gestures, while al Qubaisi simply returned to his seat and waited for the next throw. But then maybe al Qubaisi had more to be sanguine about than his competitor. The first two frames saw him get two strikes, compared with al Suwaidi's brace of spares. After each frame, the two men exchanged passing hand pats, but other than this the relationship did not seem especially warm.
Al Qubaisi laughed when this fact was pointed out afterwards. "Maybe you saw us in a very serious and angry mood," he said. "Hussain and I are friends, but during the game you have to be focused, you have to compete." Despite the popular view that bowling is more of a pastime than a sport, the people who play the game tend to take it seriously. Beyond the issue of pride, big tournaments offer significant payouts to winners, Dh70,000 or more. When you're involved in 10 events a year, as many of the top players are, this can add up. Because of the stakes involved, tempers sometimes fray - another Ramadan tournament in Dubai this year was reportedly cancelled after a fight broke out, one that needed police intervention.
At the Dubai International Bowling Centre, the closest anyone got to committing violence was slapping his thighs in frustration, or punching the air in celebration. While al Suwaidi didn't go this far, he did at least seem to perk up a little as round three progressed - and with good reason, he eventually scored 245 compared with al Qubaisi's 221. From there, however, things went downhill. Over the course of his eight-year career, al Suwaidi has scored a perfect game (300 points) a total of 24 times - the local hero al Qubaisi, by contrast, has achieved this feat 15 times in 21 years. Al Suwaidi's average score, he said, currently stands at about 220, which is up there with the best in the world. At the Ramadan tournament, though, he seemed to fall apart - scoring a poor 198, 173 and 171 in three consecutive rounds, which ultimately lost him the game.
In the end, al Suwaidi finished with a 209 average, placing him a disappointing 15th out of 20 bowlers. Al Qubaisi didn't come out on top, either - he came in second place with 230, a couple of points behind a relatively unknown veteran named Saeed Hamarain. The two big-name bowlers had their own reasons for not winning - al Suwaidi put it down to "bad luck" (the broken ball), while al Qubaisi remarked that playing 10 frames in a bowling tournament "is like playing one hole in a game of golf".
Al Suwaidi went on to insist that the tournament was really just a little fun, and that failing to win it was "no big deal". This month, he and the rest of the UAE team will fly to Hong Kong to compete in the Asian Games, which is a big deal. When asked if he expects to win this event, he didn't miss a beat. "Of course I do," he said. "Of course I do." He added that he hoped one day to win his own World Championship medal, which would elevate him to a kind of celebrity status, at least in this particular corner of Al Mamzar.