Between The Chukkers

Updated: Nov 9 2003, 05:30am hrs
The royal game of poloIndias gift to the worldwas discovered in Manipur in the North East of India around the 1850s. Even though polo spread rapidly around the globe, it is still played in its indigenous form in the remote regions of Manipur, Leh and the Gilgit hills of the Himalayas.

While modern polo has undergone many changes and evolved rules which allow the game to be played at breakneck speed on expensive thoroughbred horses, it is still the oldest and perhaps the fastest team sport in the world. To enjoy a game of polo an understanding of the structure and rules would be helpful.

The Basics

The game is played on a large level grassy field measuring 200 x 300 yards (a polo field can accommodate up to nine regulation-size football fields). It is played over four to six chukkers (periods of play), each lasting for seven-and-a-minutes of playing time (with time stopped for executing penalties) and can last from one to one-and-a-half hour. It is played between two teams of four players each, sporting T-shirts with numbers 1-4, which represents their positions and role in the team.

No 1 is primarily the forward or spearhead of the attack, who should be an optimist always positioning himself to score goals. No 2 supports the forward in the attack and plays the role of a mid-fielder. He is normally an experienced player with the ability to read the plays. No 3 is usually the pivot of the team and could most often be the highest handicapped player (best player) for his team. His role is to distribute the ball to whichever player in the team is in the best position to receive the ball and convert it into a goal. He would play all over the ground as the situation demands and normally has the best horses in the team for this demanding role. No 4 is usually the back or the defensive player in the team. His role is to foil the attack of the opposite team and pass the ball to any member of his team who is in a favourable position to attack.

Even though in principal each player has a defined role, in practice players will adapt his position to the dynamics of the game as per the demands of the moment.

Rules Of Polo

While watching a game of polo a first-time spectator can often be confused by the fouls blown by the mounted umpires. In case the two mounted umpires disagree on a foul or are not in a position to observe the infringement, they will refer the foul to a referee who sits on a raised platform on the edge of the ground and can observe the game from this vantage position. The decision of the referee is final and binding on the teams. He is the third umpire.

The rules of polo are designed to protect the horses and players from injury. The most important rule of polo is centred around the line of the ball. the player who last hits the ball creates a line along which the ball travels, the player who follows this line scrupulously is in possession of the line and has the right of way. No other player may cross his line, since that could result in a collision and injury to both players and horses.

The only way to dispossess a player from his line is to ride him off the line. This can be achieved by riding parallel in the same direction and speed and pushing the player in possession of the line away from the line, so that the challenging player can then follow that imaginary line in which the ball is travelling and make a contact with the ball.

This body contact of the players and horses is permitted as long as it is executed in the manner described above and is safe for the horse. An interesting analogy of this basic rule of polo would be found in car driving. When a car is proceeding along a particular lane (lane No. 1, for example), another car from lane No 2 or 3 cannot change lanes suddenly in front of the first car (in lane 1) as this could result in a collision. He can only do so after proper indication and if permitted to do so by the driver in lane 1. Similarly, in polo the line of the ball could be equated with the driving lane. As in driving, safe driving is lane driving. Also, in polo the most important rule centers around the right of way of the player following the line of the ball. An experienced player will entice an opponent to cross his line and claim a foul.

This strict interpretation of the rules is necessary to ensure that the game remains safe for both players and horses. Other rules are designed for the safety of the horses. In case a horse is injured or falls down, the game is stopped. The same courtesy is not extended to a player who might fall off or dismount while the game is in progress, unless the umpires decide that the dismounted player is in danger of injury.

Players may not hit another pony (horse), play dangerously or allow cruelty to horses in any form. Modern polo rules lay great emphasis on the safety of these noble athletesthe polo pony.

(Mr Sodhi is an active polo player, who has played in national and international tournaments for the last two decades and is the president of Polo Eventz, a company specialising in organising polo events in India and overseas.)