CWG 2022: Silver in men’s fours adds to India’s growing lawn bowls story

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“I am feeling as if we have taken our Kohinoor back.” Madhukant Pathak can be granted the indulgence in hyperbole, for he has dreamed of this day for the better part of two decades. From the day he arranged for four bowls from Delhi through veteran sports administrator Randhir Singh in 2005 and began training players on a hockey pitch in Ranchi, Pathak has been working towards making India a force in lawn bowls, driven by his “madness” for the game.

Pathak’s long struggle has finally borne fruit, and at the most apt of locations. First, the women’s fours team brought the relatively obscure and ridiculed game into national limelight with a historic gold medal at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games. Then, the men’s team entered the fours final by beating England, which has the world’s oldest surviving bowling green dating back to the 13th century. On Saturday, Sunil Bahadur, Navneet Singh, Chandan Kumar Singh and Dinesh Kumar, all of whom have trained under Pathak, added another chunky slice of history at the Victoria Park Lawn Bowls Rink 1 with a silver medal, going down to Northern Ireland.

For a sport that is not even acknowledged as one by many, and played at the most by a few hundred in India, winning a Commonwealth gold and a silver in a country with centuries of tradition in lawn bowls can well feel like getting the crown jewels back.

“Even when we had brought the game to Jharkhand, people would say, ‘bowl ludhkaane ka bhi koi game hota hai kya?’ (Is rolling a bowl even a sport?)” says Pathak, who is also the treasurer of the Athletics Federation of India.

Pathak would scout for players who had stalled in other sports and try and convince them to take up lawn bowls. From there, to having someone like 27-year-old Navneet, who was attracted to the sport during the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, is already quite a progression. Navneet’s school in Delhi happened to have a rare lawn bowls facility for him to get introduced to the game, but that has, of course, been the exception.

“We would get in people with sports backgrounds earlier, also because we would have to work less on training them,” says Pathak. Dinesh, 45, was once a goalkeeper at the East Bengal academy and also played for the Mohammedan Sporting junior team. But a knee injury effectively cut short his football career. “He suffered knee trouble around 2000. In 2002-03, he came to us. I told him that this game is suited for your fitness as the physical requirement is not that much,” says Pathak.

Sunil, another lawn bowls veteran and about the same age as Dinesh, had no sporting background unlike the ex-footballer, but would like to come and just watch other players practise. “Then once we told him, ‘You just keep watching, why don’t you try your hand at it?’ Then he started playing consistently. He was in the police so was physically fit.”

The cop became so dedicated to lawn bowls that it would be hard to get him off the green. “When no one else would practise, even then, Sunil would come in and put in 400 bowls a day.” After winning an Asian medal, he was promoted from constable to sub-inspector.

Chandan’s entry into lawn bowls was among the most random. He happened to be the nephew of one of Pathak’s friends. “He would just keep roaming around, awara jaisa (like a vagabond). We got hold of him from the Ranchi College hostel and brought him into the game.” He’s since gone on to win medals at the Asian level, including gold in fours in 2016 and triples in 2017. “Our players have won around 25 medals at the Asian level,” reckons Pathak.

Getting recognition

But it is these Commonwealth medals that have catapulted them from anonymity to overnight attention. “I had full faith that my players were good. We would lose only because we did not get to play too many international matches at crucial times. So, I was sure that we had to click at this level someday,” says Pathak.

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“And if we had grass greens, we could have got this result earlier. We did not have the required fund of Rs 10 lakh for installing grass greens. There is a lot of difference between playing on a synthetic surface and on grass greens.”
About 15 years ago, Pathak had requested the then Deputy Commissioner to allot two acres of land, and an indoor and outdoor facility was constructed on the outskirts of Ranchi with Rs 4 crore sanctioned from the MPLAD fund of former Rajya Sabha MP RK Anand. Today, Pathak says 44 seniors and 38 juniors train there. “We have more players than there are in the rest of India.” That is likely to change after his wards’ Commonwealth success.

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