If fans are spotted looking at their watches during the Fred Olsen Cruise Lines world indoor bowls championships this year the chances are it will have nothing to do with the quality of the entertainment on show.

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This year’s event at Potters Leisure Resort at Hopton-on-Sea will use the controversial ‘ShotClock’ for the first time.

From the moment when the opponent’s bowl comes to rest, players have only 30 seconds to consider their options before delivering their next bowl – and, if they fail to meet the deadline, a klaxon sounds and that bowl is declared dead.

Players have expressed mixed feelings about the innovation since it first appeared at Perth in November.

But it adds another slice of interest to a tournament which is already full of intrigue.

The preliminaries get underway today with five players – Canada’s James MacGowan, Hong Kong’s Terence Lee, Israel’s Amir Yaron and the USA’s Neil Furman, as well as the rival WIBA world champion Steve Allen – doing battle in a qualifying round-robin competition.

The championships proper then gets underway tomorrow with the first round of the men’s pairs.

Fittingly last year’s singles champion, Andy Thomson, who was honoured with an MBE in the New Year’s Honours List, will be involved in the opening match on the famous portable blue rink of the international arena.

Popular Anglo-Scot Thomson broke a long-standing age record last year, when, in a sport often dominated by much younger players these days, he became, at 56, the oldest man to win the world title.

This month, he will attempt to become only the third player – along with legends David Bryant and Alex Marshall – to win back-to-back titles twice, having previously done so at Preston Guild Hall in 1994 and 1995.

Tomorrow night he lines up with a new partner, Stowmarket’s Mark Royal, in the first round of the men’s pairs against England’s PBA qualifiers from Sussex, Leigh Prince and Scott Edwards.

If he and Royal reach the last eight, they will face defending champions, Paul Foster and Alex Marshall, on Saturday afternoon, for a place in the semi-finals.

Provisional world number one Foster not only won the last WBT singles event, the Scottish International Open, in Perth in November, but went on to help Marshall win the world outdoor pairs championship in Adelaide last month.

Also in action tomorrow night will be Norfolk’s own high-flying Mervyn King, from Gallow, who has already won the world indoor singles title once, and the pairs three times, but who has often found the level of expectation from the home crowd a bit of a burden.

King, who won the title with Tony Allcock, now CEO of Bowls England, once and Aussie Kelvin Kerkow twice, teams up with Nottingham’s Simon Skelton, and the duo should be experienced enough to deal with 20-year-old Welsh twins Gareth and Gavin Rees, from Swansea.

But the twins arrive with a good pedigree – their dad Steve Rees won the title with Welsh legend John Price in 1999 – and Gavin is the reigning Welsh outdoor under-25 champion.

In the singles, the first prize has been raised to a record £45,000, which may not be an earth-shattering figure compared with darts and snooker, let alone tennis and golf, but is, by some stretch, the biggest prize ever offered in Drake’s ancient game.

Foster may be the bookies’ favourite to grab the historic cheque on Sunday, January 27, but Thomson will be determined to retain the title, while fellow-Scot Marshall has won the title five times – all of them at Potters but the last five years ago.

Among the English hopefuls, Greg Harlow, still officially world number one, is the one to beat, while his City of Ely clubmate Nick Brett is running into form. King, Royal and Rob Paxton have all shown they can beat the best, while many experts are tipping former Norfolk ace Jamie Chestney to do well.

The 25-year-old Chestney, who won his first national outdoor title when he was only 17, picked up a wildcard invitation for this event, and excelled himself last month in Adelaide, where he played brilliantly to bag a bronze medal in the world outdoor pairs championship.

As usual, added spice is provided by the arrival of eight of the world’s top women bowlers – including Norfolk’s Bex Field – to contest the women’s singles and to join the world’s top eight men in the mixed pairs.

Karen Murphy, from Australia, will be out to retain her title, and her confidence will be high after winning the women’s world outdoor title on home soil last month, but England’s Debbie Stavrou will be keen to repeat her triumphs of 2010 and 2011.

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