For over 11 years, the international standard lawn bowling arena at the Yamuna Sports Complex (YSC), which was constructed as a practice venue for the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games (CWG), lay unused with both the playing turfs damaged. Due to water seepage, the joints of the turf had come undone, the stitching lacerated.
The other venue in the capital with a bowling turf for training of India’s 2022 Birmingham CWG squad was Delhi Public School, RK Puram branch. But the principal did not allow use of the school premises.
In February, a desperate Bowling Federation of India (BFI) approached the YSC management for a place to practice.
Anju Luthra, who was the manager of the national team and oversaw its preparations for Birmingham from where it returned with India’s first-ever lawn bowls medals at a CWG said, “We weren’t given permission by the school principal. She cited the spread of Covid in school premises as a threat. We pressed but she didn’t agree. We had to move the camp to YSC where the turfs had to be prepared by the BFI at its own expense.”
Two Delhiites – Pinki in women’s fours who won gold, and Navneet Singh in men’s fours who won silver – were part of the medal-winning teams.
“In February, the Bowling Federation approached us saying that they want to use it for practice”, said Col Nawab Singh, the secretary and the man in charge of affairs at YSC. “We said that they are out of use and need repair. They then inspected the venue and told us that to make the turf usable, money would have to be invested. So, they contacted the higher authorities at Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and asked them for the venue and to make the facilities functional. The BFI said it will make the greens functional at its own expense. The proposal was accepted”, he added.
Former BFI president Sunaina Kumari, who was actively involved with the bowling team and also travelled to England for CWG, stated that the process required intervention from the Lt Governor of Delhi, which was facilitated by former sports minister Kiren Rijiju.
She said, “The Ministry and Sports Authority of India refused financing for the camp (as it is not a sport recognized by the ministry). We couldn’t even get a coach.”
The entire expense of the camp was borne by the federation. Only one turf at YSC could be repaired and it cost Rs 10-15 lakh. The YSC engineering and administrative departments made the arena functional and removed the overgrown grass and moss.
The BFI also had to pay the usual rent of Rs 650 an hour to use the YSC arena. The camp lasted for four months, from mid-March till July 15.
Both the YSC and DPS RK Puram facilities were the practice venues for the 2010 CWG, while the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium turf – now dismantled – was the competition venue.
Cradle of the game
Of the two 2010 CWG practice venues, DPS RK Puram, was always the preferred choice as it was easily approachable and also because most of the Delhi lawn bowls players were from the school.
Navneet Singh, 27, a commercial pilot who won silver medal at the recent Commonwealth Games, said, “Around 40-50 kids playing competitive lawn bowls in Delhi and participating for the Delhi team are from DPS RK Puram. Only about 8-10 would be from outside.”
The Dwarka resident, who is also an alumnus of the school, has participated in all the Nationals since 2011 and has won multiple medals in each edition. He also won silver and bronze in Asian Championships in 2016, 2017 and 2018, as well as bronze in the Asia Pacific Championship 2019.
The person who encouraged him and his other schoolmates to take up lawn bowls is gold-medallist Pinki. The 41-year-old Pinki was a cricket coach but took up this sport by chance. Navneet was training to be a cricketer and Pinki was also his cricket coach at the school.
Pinki had been a Delhi state woman cricketer, having also competed in Rani of Jhansi Trophy, the inter-zone women’s cricket tournament. She had once captained Delhi University during 2003, and then in 2005, went to the National Institute of Sports, Patiala, to become a cricket coach.
“I had support from my family to pursue sports. They said ‘Don’t ignore education, get something like 50%, and you can pursue sport’,” recalls 41-year-old Pinki.
After a one-year diploma in cricket coaching at NIS, she joined Delhi’s famed Sonnet Cricket Club as coach, which has produced the likes of Rishabh Pant, Shikhar Dhawan, Ashish Nehra, Manoj Prabhakar, Anjum Chopra, Surinder Khanna, Ajay Sharma, Aakash Chopra among others.
“I started coaching under (late) Tarak Sinha. I remember him asking me once, as a sort of a test, about running between the wickets. I told him how to decrease time in running between the wickets by a simple change in technique. He was impressed”, recalls Pinki.
Once, while she was at Salwan girls’ school, she got a job offer from Shivram Rai, a coach at DPS RK Puram, who was visiting the school. “I wasn’t sure if I could go that far from my residence in Karol Bagh every day. But my brother, who was working in South Extension, insisted and I joined”, she said.
The then principal Shyama Chona, the then vice-principal DR Saini, and the current BFI president were impressed with her. Pinki was 24 when she joined the school as the Physical Education teacher.
Switch to lawn bowls
However, in 2007, a twist in fate would change her life forever. Australian lawn bowls coach Richard Gale, who was to coach India later at 2010 CWG, came to the school and oversaw a 10-day camp for the Delhi lawn bowls team ahead of the 2007 National Games.
“I was asked by Dr Saini to escort Mr Gale while he coached and oversaw the camp. Since Mr Rai was already looking at cricket, I attended the bowling camp for a brief period. During that stint, I observed Mr Gale training the kids. I picked up the basics of the sport there”, recalls Pinki, who has participated in four Commonwealth Games.
Soon, she was trying her hand at the camp. But even as she took a liking to it, she didn’t know she would be winning a medal in the near future. With one player short in the team, Pinki was asked by Gale to compete at the National Games and returned with a silver.
She never looked back after that. Since 2009, she has won medals at every Bowling Nationals, Asian Championships and Asia Pacific Championships. The Birmingham 2022 medals, India’s first-ever in the sport at the CWG, have raised the bar.
“With these medals, come expectations. There will definitely be a rise in expectations. We need to ensure that we maintain this standard”, said Pinki.
Navneet, who is currently looking for a job, also feels that they will have to continue performing. The two are hopeful that the medals will see a rise in interest in the sport in Delhi and the country.
“Assam and Jharkhand are the best in the sport. Delhi almost always ends up on the podium, although gold eludes us because it isn’t popular here”, said Navneet.
The interest in lawn bowls is needed not just to maintain the streak or raise the bar. It is also needed to bring to use the arena at the YSC. On the day both Pinki and Navneet were being felicitated by the Prime Minister and the Indian Olympic Association, yoga mats were laid out in the lawn bowls arena at the YSC for members.
“Yoga has been shifted here temporarily since there is repair work at another section and no bowling happening here”, said Sharma, the manager at YSC.
Col Nawab says that if people show interest in the sport, there can be a coaching academy, like there are for cricket, hockey, tennis and other sports. “That’ll put the YSC lawn bowls arena to good use”, he said.
Kumari adds that they are requesting the L-G to make YSC a permanent venue for bowling.
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