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From ‘Mama, why don’t you play?’ to Indian bowling’s iron lady

Sabeena Athica, a 52-year-old grandmother who goes by Singapenney, or lioness, has won the National Tenpin Bowling Championships 11 times

Sabeena Athica has just won her 11th Nationals.
Sabeena Athica has just won her 11th Nationals. (Photo: Raj Sam/Mint)

Her male colleagues on the Tamil Nadu team call her Singapenney, or lioness, from the song in the 2019 Tamil film Bigil, because she’s the lone female player and she competes equally with them. They also call her queen because she has won the National Tenpin Bowling Championships 10 times since 2001 (missing only one title since 2015). Last weekend, Sabeena Athica, a 52-year-old grandmother of two, won her 11th Nationals title against an opponent who was two decades younger.

At the 30th National Tenpin Bowling Championships held at the Amoeba bowling centre in Bengaluru, West Bengal’s Suchetana Mohanta was leading until the knockout stage and some, including Athica, forecast that the younger player, an employee at a bowling alley, might take home the cup. Mohanta, in turn, was just thrilled she would be playing the final against “ma’am". Earlier in the tournament, Athica, who often guides promising talent, had gifted her a pair of bowling shoes from Malaysia.

As Athica ended the match with a strike, her husband, Anwar Saleem, who had sat unmoving in the audience through the final, shifted position and smiled.

“Nobody has beat me like you have," Athica told Mohanta, using the colloquial “dhulai" after winning the tense final that could have gone either way. Or maybe not. As Naresh Palamappan, from the Karnataka team, put it after the match: “That’s why we call her the iron lady. She’s five-six times mentally stronger than the other players."

Athica, an unflappable hijabi athlete who has played in eight world cups, is popular on the bowling circuit, though not many people have heard of her elsewhere—probably because in the early years she stayed away from publicity for fear it might offend her family. When she’s not bowling, she runs a crafting business from home.

Her journey to conquer the world of competitive bowling began with a single-line request from her nine-year-old daughter: “Mama, why don’t you play?" It was 1999, bowling arcades had just made an appearance in our cities and an entertainment-starved middle class flocked there. Athica and Saleem too went every weekend with their two young children. She usually watched them play until, one day, her daughter demanded she join.

That was the first time Athica, from an orthodox Muslim family where adult women don’t play sport (though she grew up playing everything from cricket and basketball to frisbee with her four brothers), picked up a bowling ball. “Back then it used to be so crowded on weekends…one game would take hours to complete."

Soon she realized she was good. The alley offered bonus games for high scorers and Athica’s freebies kept piling up. “Every night after I put the children to sleep and my husband finished his work at his plastics factory, he would take me bowling," she laughs. She began participating in city tournaments and kept winning—until one day she heard about the Nationals that were scheduled to take place in Mumbai.

“My husband said, ‘Are you mad? You want to play Nationals? You are just a beginner who plays local tournaments.’ I made a big fuss, I said if my dad had been around he would have ensured I participated," Athica tells me a couple of days before the finals in Bengaluru.

Saleem—who has been her rock these past two decades—had to convince his family that it was okay to let his wife give sport a shot. She came sixth that first time. “My fingers bloated and I ruptured a tendon because I played with a ball I had borrowed from my Chennai centre. The doctor said leave bowling. I left him instead," she says, laughing. She has continued this tradition with other doctors, including the one who told her it was time to quit when she ruptured a ligament in her left knee and couldn’t play for four months.

At the Nationals, she met competitive bowlers like Harsh Vardhan Sarda, who gave her tips: Track your scores and note your average. So that’s what she did five days a week, playing six games from 7-10pm. “I had even noted the scores of that year’s winner," she says.

She went with Saleem to Malaysia to buy better equipment, including balls that would perform best on different lane surfaces. That’s where she later spent some time learning the technique of hook bowling. And two years after she first picked up a bowling ball, Athica won her first Nationals. “After winning, I just kept crying. I don’t know why I was crying," she says.

The couple have largely funded this sporting journey with their savings. They even paid their own entry fee to participate in the Nationals and drove from Chennai to Bengaluru in their own car, with 20 bowling balls loaded in the trunk.

“At first my family didn’t like it. I was leaving the kids and going to tournaments and practices all the time. They worried about what people would say. But when I kept winning, and became famous, they understood that they couldn’t stop this girl," she says.

Athica’s daughter, the catalyst for this journey, also began playing. In 2006, mother and daughter participated in the Asian Games together but these days her daughter is taking a break from the sport after marriage and children. “If both of us play, who will babysit the children?" Athica says, adding that she’s hoping her daughter will return to the sport later this year.

Athica says bowling changed her life—it exposed the couple to a larger world and allowed them to meet all kinds of people. They travelled more than they had ever imagined and even bought property abroad.

“Our life has become bowling… We were chatting that now that the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) is coming, Muslims will go to detention camps," she says. “Then what will we do? We will teach everyone in the camps bowling."

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