What did the historic CWG medals change for lawn bowls in India? - Hindustan Times
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What did the historic CWG medals change for lawn bowls in India?

ByRutvick Mehta
Aug 04, 2023 07:12 PM IST

A year ago, many Indians got their introduction to a hitherto obscure sport

“I can never forget the date — August 2," says Pinki, marking the significant real-life moment of 2022 with a special Instagram reel in 2023.

India's Lovely Choubey, Pinki, Nayanmoni Saikia and Rupa Rani Tirkey pose for photos after winning the Lawn Bowls Women's Fours gold at the Commonwealth Games 2022 (CWG).It was India's first ever medal finish in Lawn Bowls.(PTI) PREMIUM
India's Lovely Choubey, Pinki, Nayanmoni Saikia and Rupa Rani Tirkey pose for photos after winning the Lawn Bowls Women's Fours gold at the Commonwealth Games 2022 (CWG).It was India's first ever medal finish in Lawn Bowls.(PTI)

On that day in the outskirts of Birmingham, a bunch of women brought a hitherto obscure sport into the limelight in India. Pinki, Rupa Rani Tirkey, Lovely Choubey and Nayanmoni Saikia won the 2022 Commonwealth Games (CWG) women’s fours lawn bowls gold, scribbling their names as India’s first medallists in a sport that has been part of all but one CWG editions since 1930. Four days later, the men’s fours team of Sunil Bahadur, Navneet Singh, Chandan Kumar Singh and Dinesh Kumar added a silver-swaddled second to the golden first. It made the twin lawn bowls medal tale India’s most astonishing from the 2022 CWG.

One that, 12 months on, still lives fresh in the minds of the protagonists, all of whom had assembled in Delhi last week for the World Championships trials. “We were all recollecting those days, and how quickly the year has gone by," Navneet says.

Not nearly as long as it took them to get there. A majority from that 10-member squad of five men and women—six of them were aged 35 or above—had competed at the CWG before, coming close to a medal yet returning without it. “Sometimes, things happen suddenly," Pinki says. “At that point, our mindset was only to do something that will make us and this sport recognizable to people.”

The pehchan (recognition), as Chandan puts it, has been the most tangible aftereffect of their Birmingham bash. “I had played two CWG before, but nobody knew me," Chandan says. “Now, we have an identity: Chandan Kumar, CWG silver medallist in lawn bowls. People respect us.”

The respect and recognition was immediate, even if not necessarily extended from the sport’s viewpoint. The history-rolling lawn bowls architects returned home to a typical deluge of functions, cash awards, promotions in their respective jobs and an appearance in The Kapil Sharma Show for the women.

Pinki — a former cricketer, she works in Delhi Public School (DPS) as a physical education teacher — now has one of her routine shopping outings interrupted by a selfie seeker, while she doesn’t have to sacrifice her salary to turn up for tournaments anymore. “Earlier I would go to tournaments on leave without pay. After the medal, the school promoted my grade, gave cash awards and when I went for the Asian Championship, I could opt for leave with pay,” she says.

Born in Munger, Bihar, Chandan worked as a physical education teacher on a contract basis in a high school in Jharkhand, the state he represents in lawn bowls. He has now received a better job offer in Bihar with an upgraded rank. “I was told the only thing that matters is that you were born in Bihar. That is a big change in itself,” he says.

His father, a retired policeman so furious about his son’s career choice that he wouldn’t speak to him, is content Chandan has landed a proper job through the same sport. “In my village, until I won the medal, people would say, 'this guy goes to CWG only to participate on our taxpayers’ money’. The same people now say, ‘good you chose this sport’. That is what this medal has done," Chandan, 38, says.

It has also dragged new faces to a sport where age is no bar. Lawn bowls had little footprint in the country until 2010, when India hosted the CWG and had to put together a bunch of novices to field teams in it. Presently, there are approximately 600 registered lawn bowls players from across 23 state association, said Bowling Federation of India secretary general Lokinder Singh. That figure has almost doubled after the 2022 exploits. "There is a lot more awareness about the sport in India. Many new states are approaching us, and many individuals are showing their interest in playing it," Singh said.

“Earlier, there would be 9-10 teams participating in nationals," Pinki adds. “Now it is around 18.”

Yet while the numbers may have picked up, the sport’s development hasn’t. The volume of synthetic turf greens in India has remained unmoved at a lowly four, depriving players access to training infrastructure. At the National Games in Gujarat last year, lawn bowls was held on grass. “India doesn't lack talent. What it lacks is the availability of greens. We thought our medals will bring about changes in that regard, but it hasn't yet," Pinki says.

What it also still lacks is consistent support and structure. The CWG medal-winning teams have since played in only one international event, the Asian Championship this February in Ipoh — the women's fours team won gold and the men's fours bagged bronze — where they travelled partially out of their own pockets. They will do so again for the World Championships later this month in Gold Coast. The federation, not recognised yet by the sports ministry, has chipped in by organising camps and taking care of their kits and accommodation in Australia but every other cost is on the player.

Navneet, the youngest member of the men’s squad, went to the previous Worlds in New Zealand in 2016 also at his own cost as the only Indian back then. Now, he has his entire team willing to take a financial hit to knock off some more dreams. The Delhi man is eyeing an improved show seven years on, apart from a job as a commercial pilot to supplement his teaching work. “I'm hoping to run everything parallelly. Because I need money, and the sport is not giving me money. But given the love I have for the sport, even if I have to spend my entire life from my pocket to play, I will do that,” he says

As for the women — two are in their forties and two in their thirties — who after the CWG weren’t sure how long they would keep their lawn bowls career rolling, they're still playing. And together. “The four of us have developed good coordination and rhythm. For as long as we can keep playing together that way, we would like to keep going and win as many medals as possible for ourselves and for India,” Pinki says.

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