The day Shivraj Singh of Jodhpur suffered a serious head injury, while playing polo at the Rambagh Ground in Jaipur seven years ago, the sport's slide started. The glitterati, well-heeled and connoisseurs still thronged the grounds on balmy winter afternoons, but life seemed to have been snuffed out of the royal game.
At the same time, the global economy took a serious blow, and with that the game's patrons, numbering a handful, started to move out with their mallet, saddle and stirrups. There was a sense of ennui and it reflected in the conversations at the Jaipur Polo Ground on weekends.
The number of events shrunk, renowned teams (patrons) vanished, high-goal Argentine players stopped frequenting the country, and youngsters - in the Army and elsewhere - suddenly found the game too dangerous to be pursued as a career.
"Shivraj was an iconic player and when he suffered that debilitating injury in 2005, life went out of the sport," says Tarun Sirohi, the outgoing secretary of the Indian Polo Association (IPA). "That was one single incident that changed the way people looked at the sport. Even the most daring and die-hard of youngsters decided polo was too dangerous a sport to be pursued."Signs of revival
But, there are signs of a revival this year. A new breed of young and daring patrons - those who want to pump in money and play - are infusing fresh blood and ideas into the sport and the IPA is keen to cash in on it. "We are planning an eight-team Indian Arena Polo League from May 28 at Delhi and Jaipur," says Sirohi, himself a renowned player, adding, that this will improve the lot of the players. Players will get R 1lakh per handicap and it will be an all-Indian affair. It should go a long way in improving the standard of the game.
"Suppose a player is a five-goal handicapper, he will earn R5lakh in a league season. This is something unheard of in polo," says Sirohi.
Angad Kalaan, a former India captain and hailing from a family of polo exponents, says it is certain that the league will take place. "We tried popularising arena polo in the late 90s and even organised a few matches at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, but the concept didn't take off," says Angad, whose father, Raj, donned India colours and brother, Uday, is equally popular on the Indian scene.
Angad says the main reason holding back the sport from taking off is, "We haven't raised the stakes." By that, he means that the people associated with the sport - patrons, organisers, sponsors, governing bodies and media - have not taken the sport to the next level. "While we used to have a clutch of 20-plus handicap tournaments and 10 major championships in the early 2000s, we are down to a few," he says.
Agrees Adhiraj Singh, CEO of Equisport, which is deeply involved in organising big tournaments. "We can raise the stakes by bringing in realty. This sports needs infrastructure (grounds) and that can only come with big realty houses coming in a big way. They have the land and resources. We have the golf and F1 models before us. Why not emulate them?" he says.
Bad phase over
"The game is finally looking up after nearly six years of downturn, so why not encash it? Jindal Steel & Power (patron Naveen Jindal) is back in the game after pulling out for a year, and so many young tycoons, like Kuldeep Solanki, Himmat Singh Bedla, Chiragh Parekh from Bhavnagar, Sanjay Jindal, Ankur Mishra and Navneet Aggarwal, are putting money into the game and also playing it the hard way," says Adhiraj. "You should understand the psyche of the players. Young players either come from the Army or from affluent backgrounds. With the Shivraj mishap now almost forgotten, players from wealthy families are coming back," says Adhiraj, an equestrian player who quit the Army to play polo because it was less expensive.
He recently brought in Sahara India for three years and says the deal will change the sport's face in the country. Armed with the knowledge of equestrian and polo, Adhiraj had brought the oldest and most prestigious tournament in the country - the Indian Open - from Kolkata to Delhi more than a decade back. While people like Adhiraj try to rope in patrons and sponsors, Raj Kalaan, a perennial optimist, is trying to give something back to the sport. When he quit the Army, he had only one ambition: To build a polo ground and train youngsters.
Now in his 70s, the man, who has represented the IPA at tournaments in Kenya, been part of the Commonwealth team and played alongside the British Army, says while the sponsors are back, the sport is what it used to be when "I used to play between 1956 and 84".
Patrons a necessity
"It's partly because of the Army not taking interest in the sport anymore. Nowadays, we don't get players from the Presidential Bodyguards either," says the veteran, who built a ground on a barren 30-acre piece of land in Gurgaon and now promotes the game in Mongolia. But he too agrees that without patrons and sponsors, it's difficult to run the sport and manage the infrastructure. "The costs are prohibitive. Maintaining a horse costs R10,000 a month. And every top-notch player needs to have a minimum of eight ponies," says Raj.
Agrees Sirohi. "Today, the best player in the country makes not more than about R18 lakh a year, while the lesser-known get between R5-12 lakh. How can you support your family, when you spend nearly R10 lakh on the horses itself?" he asks. "Nobody can live off polo. To improve their lot, we are starting the league. Hopefully, the floodlit grounds will get us more mileage and publicity," says Sirohi.