Forty-two-year-old Pinki, a physical education teacher from Delhi Public School, RK Puram, who became only the second lawn bowls player to win the Arjuna Award this month, calls her success just the beginning and is eyeing more titles.
“This sport has no age limit. You can continue playing this beyond the age of 50-55. I think I can carry on for quite a few years,” says the player, who followed Assam’s Nayan Moni Saikia (2022) to win the prestigious national award in the sport.
She was part of the lawn bowls contingent that brought home India’s first medals in the sport at the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in 2022. Pinki won gold in women’s fours event in Birmingham.
“The New Year has started on a good note. This award assumes huge importance for me. It required a lot of hard work. It was not just about one tournament or two tournaments. It was a long journey. There were many compromises too. It involved hard work, sacrifices,” adds Pinki, who may not have become a lawn bowls player had it not been for a chance meeting with an Australian coach of the sport at her school 16 years ago.
Pinki started her career in sports as a Delhi state woman cricketer, competing in Rani of Jhansi Trophy, the inter-zone women’s cricket tournament back then. She captained Delhi University during 2003. After that, she embarked on a journey to become a cricket coach, attending the National Institute of Sports, Patiala.
“I had the backing of my family in pursuing sports. They asked me to not ignore education and get 50% just to be on the safe side.”
After earning a one-year diploma in cricket coaching at NIS, Pinki 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 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 with my knowledge,” recalled Pinki.
A job offer from a cricket coach at DPS, RK Puram, would change the course of her career.
“I wasn’t sure if I could travel that far from my residence in Karol Bagh every day. But my brother, who was working in South Extension, insisted and I joined the school as cricket coach,” she said.
The then principal Shyama Chona, the then vice-principal DR Saini, and the current BFI (Bowling Federation of India) president were impressed with her. Pinki was just 24 when she joined the school as the physical education teacher.
However, in 2007, a chance encounter would change her life forever. Australian lawn bowls coach Richard Gale, who was to train India later for the 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 Gale while he coached and oversaw the camp. Since Rai was already looking at cricket, I could take time off and attend the bowling camp for a brief period. During that stint, I observed Gale training the children. I picked up the basics of the sport there,” recalled Pinki, who has participated in four Commonwealth Games.
Soon, she was trying her hand at the sport during the camp. But even as she took a liking to it, she didn’t expect to win a medal soon after the camp. With one player short in the team, Pinki was asked by Gale to compete at the National Games in Guwahati and she obliged with a silver.
“Switching from cricket proved to be fruitful. Change is always good. You have to accept it.
“I shifted out of cricket totally in 2008-09. The journey started from 2009. After the medal at 2007 National Games, I had played only one tournament – the Fed Cup in 2008. That was it. I took up the sport seriously from 2009,” adds Pinki who 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.
“Nayan Moni Saikia got the Arjuna Award in 2022. Such quick back-to-back awards give you confidence and people also get motivation to play,” she says while pointing out at the growth of the sport in recent times.
“The number of teams participating in the Nationals has increased. At the last National Championships in 2023 in Assam, there were as many as 18 state teams — proper ones — while earlier there used to be only 8, 9 or 10 teams. It shows that the game is gaining in popularity across the country.”
Pinki feels that the opportunities and tournaments for lawn players have increased manifold over the last year or so.
“We had many tournaments in 2023. We started with a camp for Asian Championships followed by the tournament; then we had a camp for World Championships followed by the tournament (in Gold Coast, Australia from where she returned after losing in quarter-finals in Women’s Triples); then we had nationals and the camp before that. Then we participated in the National Games (where she returned with a medal).
“We kept playing tournaments. People also kept getting to know us.”
The next target is the Asian Championships in Thailand in March.
“There is no age bar. I am focussing on the 2026 Commonwealth Games. But the immediate focus is Asian Championships in Pattaya in March. I try to spend as much time as I can during practice though I am able to give only one hour to myself nowadays due to the chilly conditions nowadays. I have to work in the morning and take time out for it. The preparations will get into full swing once the camp for Asian Championships starts.”