Game for a chukker

Updated: Nov 7 2003, 05:30am hrs
The 2003-04 polo seasons kicked off in New Delhi with the Hyundai Sonata Maharaj Sir Pratap Singh Cup currently underway at the Jaipur Polo Ground. The traditions are happily intact. Polo teams swap sides after a goal is scored; horses change every chukker, a sponsors name will never be associated with the Presidents Cup, and hi-tea and polo balls remain must-haves for a tourney worth its reputation!

Its the crowd winding its way to the ground which mirrors perfectly the resurgence witnessed in the king of games over the past decade. Youll need to brandish an entrance ticket, a never-before, says Mala Singh, a veteran of the Delhi scene, and scramble to find parking. Within, the royals rub shoulders with corporate czars; the once-upon-a-time Ascot-type of formality in clothing gives way to casual chic. Typically, Indian Armymen in attendance with families plus civilian members of the citys riding clubs and the political elite comprised a chummy set. Now, their mecca is seeing hordes of new invitees, valued clients of sponsors seated under corporate marquees. Amongst all this, doing the rounds will be Chetan Seths cigars and little social numbers.

The polo playing circuit boasts the Army Reds and Greens, among the top teams even today. And why not They have skilled riders, the best thoroughbreds and access to top-notch training facilities. And yes, polo still qualifies as the game of kings, with Kunwar Lokendra Singh of Ghanerao, Yuvraj Kashmir, and Yuvraj Jodhpur figuring among the playing elite. Clubs continue to be run by their families, the sport is even being taught by them the House of Mewar and Jaipur prominently figuring here. In fact, Major (retd) Adhiraj Singh, a former member of the Indian national team and now involved with promoting the sport commercially, terms one, Arvind Singh Mewar of Udaipur, as the flagbearer of civilian participation. Before the corporates entered the scene in the early 90s, he unleashed (in 1987) the Mewar team, which went on to effectively end the Indian Armys domination.

Yet, the new trends are hard to miss. Major Singh talks about the emergence of new centres such as Bangalore. Philip Elliott, an Englishman playing polo for the past 25 years, seven of them in India, says hes played the world over but nowhere has the game developed as fast as in India. He notices that, the grounds are improving, the standard of horses has picked up tremendously, kids are starting to play the sport at the school level, and professionals can earn as much here as they can anywhere else in the world. And polo enthusiasts swear by the 4,000-strong crowd which is becoming de rigueur on Sundays, at least in the major centres of Delhi, Jaipur and Jodhpur.

Safely put polos increasing popularity down to the patronage of people and corporates such as Bikky Oberoi, Navin Jindal, Navin Khanna, Bala Mallya, Rajesh Sahgal, Ajay Piramal, Karan Thapar, ABN-Amro, United Breweries, Hyundai, LG Electronics, Seagrams, Omega, Radico Khaitan et al. Theyve floated teams or taken to sponsoring tourneys. Patrons sporting their own teams have relieved the pro of the burden of ownership and maintenance of polo ponies, which leaves him free to focus on his game. As polo pro Uday Kalaan points out, learning to ride maynt cost much, but to play professionally you need a horse or two and a top quality thoroughbred can set you back by a cool Rs 5 lakh plus the Rs 5,000 per horse per month to keep it in top shape.

The moneys not bad either. According to Mr Kalaan, a 5 goaler can make up to Rs 70,000 per tourney, packing in about 15 tourneys in the eight-month long season. Patron-sponsored teams also pull in top talent from abroad. For instance, Mr Elliott who plays for South Delhi, a team owned by Mr Mallya, a Dubai-based industrialist has at least five other foreigners on the polo circuit.

But even as the sport shows signs of a resurgence, itll be some time before its broad-based enough to attract those whore neither royalty nor come from Army backgrounds. Preetendra Singh should know. An MBA who belongs to the farming community in Abohar, Punjab, he took up riding at age 23, at the Saket club in New Delhi. Youll need to attach yourself to a team or a player or two to be able to break in, he advises (he did just that, with the Godhara brothers) because, at the junior level, we dont have a good set-up just yet. Absence of clubs which will lend you horses to play on and professional talent scouts, mean that in the initial years, youll have to know the right people and hope to apprentice with them to pick up the ropes and use their facilities.

What the ordinary man can do easily is watch the game! Its pretty simple to follow as a spectator, says Ms Singh, if youre into horses and appreciate good horsemanship. So, head to the Jaipur Polo Ground this Sunday thankfully, the tourneys at least are open houses.