Nice and slow: India get to grips with lawn bowls

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In a way, you could say Mark Waugh introduced India to lawn bowls.

Sometime in 2005, former Indian cricket first-class umpire Madhukant Pathak was intrigued when he saw Waugh roll bowls on a green in Melbourne. "He told me about how he loves to play the sport whenever he gets time off and how it helps his hand-eye coordination in cricket."

Pathak, now national bowling coach, brought back home the germ of an idea with him and set up two greens in Namkum, Ranchi. It was to be the first, and till this day, the only open-for-all greens in the country.

Pathak, whose younger brother Shashikant was MS Dhoni's first coach, in turn got the former India captain drawn to it. "His first question was, 'so tell me who else plays this sport'," Pathak laughs. Lawn bowls a thoroughly obscure sport in India, so you can barely take offence of Dhoni's query.

"So I pulled out my picture with Mark Waugh at the Melbourne greens and that was all that was needed. Even today whenever Dhoni is in Ranchi or on his way to the Deori temple, he stops by for a game of bowls."

Pathak's home is a stone's throw away from the Harmu ground, which was Dhoni's stomping ground as a kid. Pathak recalls umpiring a match which had a 13-year-old Dhoni and one Sabi Hussain scoring 400 runs in 40 overs.

A sport so leisurely in its pace that it runs the risk of being called lazy, lawn bowls has players rolling assymetrical bowls on greens in an attempt to get them as close to a small white ball called the jack. Since the bowls are flattened on one side, they take up a curved course when rolled and can be a lot tougher than it sounds.

Calling it a game of etiquette, Pathak says that it is supposed to be so well-mannered that once your turn is up, it is almost expected that you will wipe the bowl and hand it over to your opponent.

Sitting at the Broadbeach Bowls Club while the Indian team went about its pairs campaign, Pathak spells out the number of clubs and players in the suburb - 42 and 5000 respectively - with mild astonishment. India have never won a medal in lawn bowls at the big-ticket events and it's not without sufficient reason.

"The foremost problem is that barring Namkum and a facility in Assam, there's practically no place to play bowls in India. Of course there's the Royal Calcutta Golf Club in Kolkata but that's members only and not accessible to all."

Unlike the natural greens where international competitions are held, Indian players get to train only on synthetic surfaces back home. Being a non-recognised sport by the government also adds to it the crushing blow of zero funding for training and competitions. Despite qualifying for the World Cup last year, the Indian team, Pathak says, couldn't participate because there was no money. The only international competition the team manages to compete in a year is the Asian Championships, with the players funding their own trips.

"Unless you play against the strong teams at international events the fear of competition doesn't leave you. That's what we're dealing with now," Pathak says.

Since bowling is one of the core sports in the Commonwealth program, the government sent the team a month-and-a-half before the Games to Gold Coast for training and acclimatization. The Indian team is a motley mix of players drawn from different sports; there are former football and kabaddi players, as well as a long jumper.

Most took up the sport because it is physically less strenuous. What you need to be able to do is roll bowls for a couple of hours, so bending is the primary physical activity involved, a benign exertion when compared to the demands that runs, sprints, lunges and leaps in other disciplines make on the body.

"I won't say zero fitness is needed. You have to be able to stand there, show endurance and draw bowls for a good couple of hours," Pathak says.

Dhoni too, he says, finds joy in bowling.

"Once he's done with cricket, he has promised to spend more time playing bowls."