Commonwealth Games 2018: Odds stacked up against them, the Indian lawn bowling team yearns to make a mark in Gold Coast
For the citizens of India, the term “lawn bowling” is sure to draw up a blank stare. Sure, everyone around is more than familiar with the concept of bowling on the cricket field, but nothing beyond that. To add to their befuddlement, the lawn bowlers from the country are one of the strongest contingents in the upcoming Commonwealth Games and this fact has only heightened their curiosity.
So, what exactly is the lawn bowling all about? Is it a version of shotput? Or golf? Not exactly. The basics are rather simple. The odd-shaped ball, that is heavier on one side must get as close to the white ball, which is called the jack. Due to the irregularity in the shaping of the ball, it does not tend to travel straight on a flat square that has a shallow ditch at the end. The 35 to 40-metre-long square is divided into six zones, called the rinks.
The first bowler has the duty of placing the mat and rolling the jack at least 23 metres away, which then serves as a target. It is then moved to the centre of the square, after which each player gets four bowls per end. A point is awarded to the team that has their balls closest to the jack. After four throws, the direction of play is changed.
The games at the Commonwealth Games will have best of three sets, with each set comprising of a maximum of seven points. In case of a tie-break, each player will get three extra ends and the highest scorer in the tie-break will go on to win the game.
But on first glance, this sport, much like golf, comes across as an elitist past-time, with it being regarded as one of the most leisure sports that have existed for over a century in many countries. Traditionally known as the “old man’s sport”, strict dress codes are in place for all the lawn bowlers in Australia, wherein they have to be decked in an all-white attire before readying themselves for the match ahead.
It is here that the eleven-team Indian lawn bowling team stands out. Not only are they younger than most of the other competitors in this event, they have also broken the notion that only well-to-do individuals can indulge in the sport. Most of the members from India belong to the tribal areas in Jharkhand and have turned towards it as professionals due to desperation – either due to the lack of skills in any other sport or the financial crunches that overcame their families.
Dinesh Kumar, who will be participating in the Triples event, for example, was introduced to the concept of lawn bowling after a knee injury cut short his footballing dreams. Sunil Bahadur has become a sensation in his hometown of Ranchi after becoming a sub-inspector once he won an Asian medal last year. While Nayanmoi Saikia’s father has to sell odd objects as a cart-vendor, Krishna Xalxo’s family are fast-food sellers. Lawn bowling then, to them, is just another means of survival.
Such is the sorry plight, that the Indian team was denied a trip to Sydney ahead of the Commonwealth Games that was held in India in 2010. Due to their unstable financial backgrounds, Richard Gale, the then-lawn bowls coach had to cast aside his plans of taking the young and inexperienced team to Australia for preparation. Eight years later, they arrive in the same country, as possible medal prospects. The journey indeed has come full circle!
One person who has unanimously gone on to become the face of lawn bowling in India is Madhukant Pathak, who started off as a first-class cricket umpire. In an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda, Pathak recalled his first encounter with the sport.
“I visited Melbourne in 2005 for the Lawn Bowls World Cup. There, I met Australian cricketer Mark Waugh, who introduced me to the sport. He not only informed me that apart from cricket, lawn bowling is one of the most popular sports in Australia but also that it helps in increasing fitness and concentration levels. I was intrigued and returned to Ranchi to set up two lawn bowling surfaces in my hometown.”
Popularly known as MS Dhoni’s home, Ranchi soon became the hub of lawn bowling. Four of the six editions of the nationals have been held in the city and the facilities on offer at the academy are unparalleled in the nation. Even the former cricket captain takes time out to visit Pathak’s academy.
“Dhoni has a great hand-eye coordination, which is a must if one has to become a great lawn bowler. Other than that, he is really calm under pressure as well. The other characteristics that are needed to succeed in this sport are calmness, patience and determination. It helps improve fitness levels, with one game helping one to lose over 1000 calories.”
One major issue that constantly plagues the 125 Indian lawn bowlers is the lack of grounds with natural grass. The squad has been acclimatised to bowling on synthetic carpets that are faster while the ones at the CWG will be slower.
“The events in Australia will be played on natural grass and with only one natural lawn bowls field in Kolkata, the challenge is to adapt quickly. The natural greens are tougher as a player needs to put in more labour and shoulder action on the slower surface.” For this reason, the contingent, led by Pathak, had landed in Australia a well two-and-a-half-month before the marquee event was slated to commence.
Pathak is confident that a good show at the CWG will help turn around the fortunes of the sport in India. “In India, we only have 125 registered lawn bowlers. In Australia, only at the Broadbeach Club, we witness more than 300 players with over 100 bowling greens! There is no publicity of the sport in India, either at the club or the school-level. If we do perform well here, at the Games, the SAI (Sports Authority of India) will take adequate steps to popularise the sport.”
Though the odds are stacked against them, a noteworthy performance can indeed open up the gates for the game to flourish in this part of the world.