Lovely Choubey, 42 years old, ex-100m sprinter, police constable, Jharkhand.
Pinki, 41 years old, ex-cricketer, PE teacher, Delhi.
Rupa Rani Tirkey, 34 years old, ex-kabaddi player, district sports officer, Jharkhand.
Nayanmoni Saikia, 33 years old, ex-weightlifter, forest officer, Assam.
What do these four all have in common? They've won India's first-ever Commonwealth Games medal in Lawn Bowls and can bring home the gold tomorrow.
If you didn't know the sport, the mention of Lawn bowls conjures up certain stereotypes: PG Wodehouse, manicured lawns, and high society whiling away their time on it. Privilege, the languid life, exclusivity. And that's how it's been in India too for the longest time, Lawn Bowls largely played in the posh clubs in Kolkata and Mumbai.
The venue for the sport in the 2022 CWG is similar: Royal Leamington Spa, a small, wealthy town an hour away from Birmingham. The spectators a stark contrast - to put it mildly - to the weightlifting crowd that this reporter has largely been exposed to here. Bowling etiquette permits some whoops of appreciation and groans of empathetic frustration but for the vast majority of the time it's silence, or conversations in hushed whispers.
Lovely, Pinki, Rupa Rani, Nayanmoni are proof that sometimes stereotypes mean nothing. On Monday, they pulled off a stunning comeback against New Zealand to become the first Indians to make the finals of Lawn Bowls at any Commonwealth Games. A rollercoaster of a match, it dispelled any notion of this being a sedate sport.
First, Lawn Bowls 101: The match is divided into 15 "ends", or sets, with each four-person team having eight shots per end. The sport itself is a cross between billiards and golf putting: the ball is propelled along grass towards the target called 'jack', and the aim is to get your ball as close as possible to the jack; it calls for precision, calculating trajectory and targeting the opponents' positions on the grass.
The match began with New Zealand taking an early 5-0 lead. By end four, that read 6-1 to New Zealand. That's when the comeback started. "You must have seen us huddling together after every end. We were basically praying a lot," says Pinki.
6-1 became 6-5 by end seven, and 6-7 to India by end eight.
That lead kept changing hands. New Zealand seemed to have pulled away to a decent lead when they went up 12-10 after end 12. A couple of lovely shots from Rupa and Pinki and it was 12-12 after end 13. The next end, though, was simply sensational. India had a series of exceptional shots, and appeared to have got three points in the bag. With the second-last shot of theirs, though, New Zealand pushed the jack towards their balls. A three point lead became a one-point deficit. 13-12 New Zealand.
In end 15, India started brilliantly again, and looked like they were going to get a two point lead. Till another penultimate New Zealand shot, and another swing from multi-point lead to single-point deficit. Which is when Rupa Rani stepped up. A deep breath, a glance to where Lovely was pointing and screaming "this line, right here, with this exact angle and weight", a call roll. Out rolled the New Zealand ball, in went the Indian. One-point deficit turned to three-point lead. Match sealed, 13-16 to India. Hello, final. Hello, history.
This Indian team have all been playing for well over a decade, most dating their start to around the 2010 Delhi CWG. It was at that time that the authorities had decided to pay attention to Lawn Balls since it's a core CWG sport and added it to the National Games. As Rupa explains, the sport grew where the national games went around at the time: Delhi, Assam, Jharkhand, West Bengal, and even Kerala. The four of them benefited from this.
"We are unable to express our emotions"
India's historic Lawn Bowls team on reaching the final ��️
- ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) August 2, 2022
They had stumbled upon the game by accident, all of them grasping at it as a second chance to play competitive sport. Injuries stopped Lovely's athletics career and Nayanmoni's weightlifting, and they were advised to try this 'new sport' out by their coaches as an alternative, to remain in sport. Pinki, a one-time state cricket player and Delhi University captain, was introduced to it when her school - Delhi Public School - was chosen as a practice venue for the Delhi nationals. She had been taken to her first nationals to make the minimum number required, and won silver despite never having played the game before. She went from cricket teacher to Lawn Bowls national camp in the span of those few days. She now trains her students in Lawn Bowls too. Rupa, meanwhile, tried Lawn Bowls because a relative asked her. "Why not try a more individual sport [than kabaddi]". She won bronze in her first nationals and realised that the cash stipend given by the Jharkhand government for this was considerably higher than for kabaddi. Her mind was made up. They have all been playing together, in some combination or the other, for well over a decade now and the camaraderie is evident. Communication is incessant, far in excess of what their opponents usually do, while the post-match celebrations spoke volumes.
Rupa and Pinki had come agonisingly close to a debut medal in 2010, losing the bronze medal match. They had then, along with Lovely, reached the quarters in Glasgow 2014 and Gold Coast 2018.
When coming into the zone for the media interactions, they were all chatting and yelling and whooping as one. The disappointment of the past decade significantly magnified the romance of this moment.
It is a close knit-group, the team. In the stands, the most vociferous support came from the remainder of their contingent, the men's team players. "Did you see how they didn't even move from their seats the whole game?" asks Pinki with pride.
They had come into the tournament ready to take it one game at a time, they said. They didn't want to think about what not winning a medal in a low-profile sport for India would mean for their future. How much more stretched the already sketchy financial support would become. "It gave us sleepless nights [ahead of the Games]," but they decided to focus on the now. "It is only possible when the four of us think together, as one."