Rupa Rani Tirkey is a sports officer in Jharkhand. Nayanmoni Saikia is a forest department official with the Assam government. Lovely Choubey is a constable in Jharkhand Police. Pinki Kaushik Singh is a physical education teacher at a private school in Delhi.
Until a couple of weeks ago, these four women would've been identified primarily through the designations mentioned above. But not anymore.
On 1 August, several Indians possibly jumped to Google the rules of lawn bowls. Besides a plethora of medals in judo and some expected victories in boxing and badminton, India was suddenly assured of a rather unexpected medal after the women’s fours lawn bowls team defeated New Zealand to qualify for the final.
The sport, let alone the players, is not popular in India. Back in 2010, when India obtained the rights to host the Commonwealth Games, the nation received a ‘host quota’ to field a team in lawn bowls. Former India Olympic Association (IOA) Secretary General Randhir Singh decided to not waste the quota and tried popularising the sport.
Over the last 12 years, Indian lawn bowls players made significant strides, albeit with no fame and little support. However, that partly changed on 2 August when the women’s fours team defeated South Africa to win the gold medal in the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
As it so often does, overnight fame did a decent job in concealing twelve years of neglect. But for people like the women’s fours’ team manager Anju Luthra, who has seen innumerable lows before experiencing rare highs, their days of drudgery and neglect fuels their desire to keep performing well at this sport.
Speaking with The Quint, Luthra recollected her struggles of finding players during the nascent years of Indian lawn bowls. “No one had any idea about lawn bowls when we started. Koi issey bada kancha kehta tha, koi issey chota kancha kehta tha, humein itna dukh hota tha (Some called it ‘big marbles,’ some called it ‘small marbles,’ we used to feel really sad,” she said.
How Lawn Bowls Survived With Very Little Support
Back in September 2014, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports introduced the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) to provide financial aid to a selection of athletes. Unfortunately, it did not change the fortunes of the lawn bowls players as the sport remained neglected. So far, the Bowling Federation of India (BFI) has had to bear all their expenses, alongside some contributions from the staff themselves.
“We were not included in TOPS. The entire expense was borne by the BFI, while we also borrowed money from a few known people, saying we will repay once we get back from Birmingham,” informed Luthra.
For a team that struggled to secure basic resources, hiring foreign coaches was all but an exorbitant fantasy. Thankfully for the players, their manager opted to don multiple hats – juggling between her usual role as a manager with that of a coach and also a motivator.
“We did not get any foreign coaches. Hence, the entire responsibility was on us – from preparing training programmes to taking tests and making evaluations. Despite our struggles, the main focus has always been to give our players the very best we can. We were determined to not let the players face any problems,” Luthra said.
Rupa Rani Tirkey and Pinki Kaushik Singh echoed similar feelings when we asked them about their hardships. “We consider ourselves fortunate, as we never had to deal with the difficulties BFI was facing on a consistent basis,” they told The Quint.
For Singh, life has been turned on its head ever since she returned from Birmingham. The physical education teacher is now being treated as a celebrity at her school, with congratulatory messages pouring in, increment of remuneration, and a promotion in order.
However, Luthra spoke about how they once struggled to find a suitable ground to practice and that the school had refused to help.
“We needed a place where we could practice, and that school had two grounds. The Federation requested them to let us use those grounds, but not only did they reject, they also threatened to take legal action against the BFI if we came up with such requests again. They even sanctioned only unpaid leave for Pinki. I am thankful that the girl was passionate enough to travel while compromising on her salary,” Luthra said.
Ditching the Bygones, Lawn Bowls Contingent Hopes for a New Dawn
Singh, however, feels that it is best to ‘let bygones be bygones.’ Like her three other teammates, she is enjoying her burgeoning popularity, hoping that the limelight never fades. Luthra is also very optimistic as she proudly claims “Ab humne gold medal jeet liya hai, abhi dekhiyega TOPS me bhi humara naam aa jayega, support bhi badhega. (Now that we have won the gold medal, lawn bowls will be inducted in TOPS now.)"
For a sport that had developed an affinity towards tenebrosity after spending years behind the curtains in India, the sudden elevation in stature and repute feels like an oasis. All that Luthra and her players now hope for is that the oasis does not turn out to be a mirage and the popularity graph of lawn bowls in India continues to see an upward slope.