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Polo for the people

The popularity of the royal sport has suffered because it is seen as the preserve of the elite. But with renewed corporate interest, new polo centres and younger players, is polo headed to the people?

Ashley Parekh, youngest female polo player in India , at Mahalaxmi Race Course in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Ashley Parekh, youngest female polo player in India , at Mahalaxmi Race Course in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

At the Mahalaxmi Racecourse in Mumbai, the Millionaire Asia Polo Cup, one of the biggest draws of the city’s polo season, is underway. On this sweltering March afternoon, the Amateur Riders’ Club polo team of Colonel Ravi Rathod, Abhimanyu Pathak, Salim Azmi and Mitesh Mehta is taking on a fierce team from Argentina, where polo is more religion than sport—the South American country is home to the most famous playing turf in the sport, dubbed the “Cathedral of Polo".

Frequent shouts of “Go Abby!" ring out. They are directed at Pathak, a clear favourite in my stand, and a collective groan erupts when he is thrown from his horse. Within seconds, an ambulance enters the grounds. A quick check and Pathak, unscathed, is back in the game. Such accidents are commonplace in polo, which is an exacting discipline and demands an appetite for risk.

In India, the birthplace of modern polo, the sport has long been eclipsed in popularity, not that it was ever a pursuit of the common man. It’s seen as a hobby for the moneyed, and even sports obsessives would be at a loss to name a single professional player today. But within polo’s tightly knit community of players and patrons, a new energy is stirring, and the sport is making hesitant strides towards greater relevance. There is more corporate patronage, a young guard of female and first-generation players, as well as experiments with spectator-friendly formats.

Pathak, one of the country’s finest polo players, is one example of this change, and something of an anomaly in the “sport of kings". A first-generation player from outside the leisured classes, he generates a living from the sport. As a young riding enthusiast, Pathak says he felt a natural affinity to the game; and after facing parental resistance, he left his Delhi home, aged 17, and began working at call centres to finance lessons at the Army Polo and Riding Club.

Pathak now has an annual contract with industrialist and polo patron Sunjay Kapur’s Sona Polo team, which he also manages. He has represented the country in three world championships. Outside the fraternity, however, these achievements have gone largely unnoticed. “I’m the only player in the country who entered the sport with no support," says Pathak, post the game. The match concluded in a 3-3 tie. “Sadly, the media covers polo matches like page 3 events. Celebrities are written about but there’s no mention of the players. Only in Jaipur things are different. The local papers are filled with the details of every single match."

A similar grouse embitters several of his contemporaries, especially since 2017 was a significant year for Indian polo. After defeating Pakistan 8-7 in a tense match in Tehran, the national team earned a spot in the top eight of the World Polo Championships.

Part of the squad was a charismatic 19-year-old whom many believe will be at the forefront of a new polo wave: Padmanabh Singh, heir to the former ruling family of Jaipur. Pathak says that for outsiders like him to find success in polo, it’s essential for a new, committed generation of patrons to emerge. “Pacho (Padmanabh Singh) is just a kid, but he’s been working very hard to promote Indian polo abroad," he says. Last year, Singh captained the Indian polo team for the opening match of Chestertons Polo in the Park, one of the largest polo events in England. The match held historical merit for both sides; it marked the first visit to the Hurlingham grounds by an Indian team in more than 70 years, and Hazel Jackson, captain of the English side, became the first female player to take part in the tournament.

Singh, also the youngest player to represent the country at the world championships, now elicits comparisons to his great-grandfather Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II, a 10-goal player who famously led the Indian team to their only World Cup victory in 1957.

(From left) Polo players Harsh Piramal, Riyhad Kundanmal and Colonel Ravi Rathod at the Mahalaxmi Racecourse in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Taking polo to the people

Polo is a swift, contained sport, played in 7-minute “chukkers", with each match comprising four-eight chukkers. A full match usually takes just under an hour. It is thrilling to watch even for the unversed spectator. A smooth backhand, the tremble of thudding hooves, a huddle of beasts and mallets undone with a precise swing, and, in culmination, the rapid, harmonious charge of horse and rider.

Despite these obvious attractions, however, polo struggles to find a large audience in India.

The sport must negotiate three major hurdles. The first is logistical: A polo field is about three times the size of a football field, making it impractical in space-crunched cities. Even cities that are building a riding and equestrian culture, such as Pune, don’t have polo-training facilities.

Polo is also an expensive sport. Professional players need to buy their own horses and be able to pay for their upkeep.

Nor is it very television-friendly; the game is extremely fast, and centred on a tiny ball that zips between thundering hooves. Televising polo requires an elaborate multiple-camera set-up.

But all this could change quite quickly, starting with an unlikely town—Bhavnagar, Gujarat. The game had no presence here before Chirag Parekh, chairman of granite-based manufacturing company Acrysil Ltd, and a passionate polo player, took up the sport. Parekh now aims to transform the town into a formidable polo hub (and, if he has his way, rename the town “Polonagar"). Since he set up the Bhavnagar Polo Club on his private grounds in 2010, local players such as Jayvirsinh K. Gohil have launched their own mentorship programmes.

Parekh has also established a cycle polo team in the area. The niche international sport that entered India as an off-season alternative to horse polo in the 1900s, is now in the midst of its own revival—and, according to Parekh, it’s good training for horse polo too. The game has enlisted a large share of junior players, particularly from smaller towns, and the Cycle Polo Federation of India is expected to organize a league championship modelled on cricket’s Indian Premier League.

A similar attempt has been made with horse polo. In April last year, Parekh organized the inaugural edition of the Champions Polo League, an ambitious, spectator-friendly format of the game. He adopted rules similar to those of arena polo: The matches were played under floodlights on a football-sized field to make it easier to follow the game; there were three players on each side instead of four; and a substitution chukker system gave younger players a chance to improve their handicap.

A player’s individual handicap, ranging from -2 (the lowest) to 10, is an important number in polo. It ranks player skill and helps them negotiate tournament contracts. There are only a handful of 10-goal players in the game today; and none in India. The highest-ranking players in the country, Shamsheer Ali and Simran Singh Shergill, are six-goal players. The average fee of a professional player is Rs50,000-75,000 per week; the figure increases with a player’s handicap.

“The sad part is, until you’re a 1-handicap player, you don’t get paid," says Parekh. “Every team hires the best handicapped players and youngsters don’t get a chance to play. As a result, their handicap will not improve. So how does one survive in the sport?"

Parekh says the tournament he organized drew a total audience of around 20,000, and sponsorship from luxury labels like Maserati, Harley-Davidson and Land Rover as well as local Gujarati pharmaceutical and cement companies. Now, Parekh plans to package a travelling Champions Polo Day property that will host matches around the country in this redesigned arena format. Australia has tasted success with a similar endeavour—an annual carnival-style series called Urban Polo circuit that is now the largest national polo tournament in the world. “Fill a stadium, and you can popularize the sport," Parekh says. “It needs to be an evening sport and the youth need to be involved."

His work in the sport has brought another promising young entrant to the game, his 15-year-old daughter, Ashley (featured on cover).

The first all-women polo team to represent the Indian Polo Association. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Women in the sport of kings

A few weeks later, at the Sternhagen Polo Cup semi-finals in Mumbai, the city’s polo season is drawing to a close. Soon, it will be too hot to play. At the stables, Ashley’s horse, Amazing, kicks about moodily. “Don’t stand behind her," warns Ashley, caressing the horse’s face.

Amazing seems disinclined to play this afternoon, and Haseena, of gentler disposition, is called forward by a perceptive groomsman. Ashley is back on a horse after a break of two months—riding was off-limits during her board exams—and eager to warm up with a practice chukker. Only two matches old, she is one of the youngest female polo players in the country.

The last match Ashley played was at the second edition of the Jodhpur International Ladies Polo Cup in December. “Two-three of the top female polo players in the world were playing with me, so it was an amazing experience," she says. “Nobody my age plays polo," she adds shyly.

According to Col Ravi Rathod, honorary secretary of the Indian Polo Association (IPA), the governing body of the sport in the country, there are some 200 polo players in India. The number of female players is in single digits. Rinaa Shah, 43, one of the first female players in the country, took up the sport in 2011. Numbers have increased only marginally since. The paucity of women can’t be explained simply by the lack of opportunity, especially since polo allows the two genders to play together. According to Ashley’s mother, Sheetal, implicit societal prejudices keep young women away. “Polo is an expensive sport," she says. “Unless parents are willing to invest that much money in a daughter, there will be an imbalance. They are more likely to encourage their daughters towards showjumping because it’s more elegant, while polo is risky and aggressive."

Things are more hopeful in Manipur, the birthplace of sagol kangjei, which inspired the modern version of the game. For instance, the Manipur Statehood Day Women’s Polo Tournament was initiated in 2016 to propel the growth of women’s polo and draw attention to the endangered Manipuri pony. “This year, there were teams from Kenya, Australia, the US, Manipur, and one from the Indian Polo Association as well," says Rathore. “Every village there has a team, so, when tournaments happen, you have thousands of people attending, as opposed to hundreds in cities like Mumbai."

The Indian polo team after qualifying for the 2017 World Polo Championship in Sydney. Photo: Instagram@PoloVikram

Redrafting the calendar

The Indian polo season lasts about six months and is spread across various cities—Jaipur, Noida, Delhi, Jodhpur, Kolkata and Mumbai, with some weeks allotted to new entrants like Lucknow, Hyderabad and Bengaluru. According to Rathore, Delhi and Jaipur host about 20-21 weeks of polo, while other centres have four-five. “The local players and the sponsors of a club have to be very involved for it to survive," he says. “Former centres like Kolkata and Hyderabad have been in decline for a while, and the game is now almost finished there."

Chirag Parekh argues that reorganizing the polo calendar is essential for the emergence of smaller centres like Bengaluru and Chennai, something he hopes to negotiate with the IPA. While polo is concentrated in the northern belt, Chennai, a former hot spot, is witnessing a quieter revival under the aegis of veterans such as Kishore Futnani, who co-founded the Polo 2.0 Chennai initiative in the city.

In Mumbai, the Amateur Riders’ Club is a fine example of a prospering civilian polo club that is gradually expanding its season (March-April). They have around 40 polo players at the club, in the age group of 16-60—most players enter the sport after the age of 35, because that’s when they can afford it. The president of the club, Suresh Tapuriah, 73, says that for the sport to move into smaller towns, investment in new grounds is essential, and might soon be possible. “On a visit to Mahabaleshwar, the governor of Maharashtra saw an unused 200-year-old polo ground there, and he’s keen on reviving it," he says.

In keeping with social tradition, polo matches continue to appeal to the swish set and segue into evenings of champagne-fuelled fraternizing. For Tapuriah, celebrity draws are essential to preserve media interest in the sport, though he remembers, rather wistfully, a time when polo players themselves carried greater street cred. “In the 1970s, I was playing a match in Palm Springs, in the US. After the game, actors like Sylvester Stallone and Bo Derek came up to us and asked to take a picture. That was the standing of an Indian polo player. Unfortunately, we have lost that glamour."

Money power

In the 1990s, polo in India was suffering. The golden era had passed, royal patronage was dwindling, and the Indian cavalry was the sole upholder of the tradition. In 1992, a polo match in Jaipur attended by Britain’s Prince Charles, remembered now for the photograph of Lady Diana deflecting her husband’s kiss, was a pivotal moment for sponsorship. “That match was sponsored by Standard Chartered Bank and it was the first instance of a corporate sponsor coming into the game," says Vikram Rathore, who manages the DS Group team Rajnigandha Achievers. They are one of the best-performing polo teams in the country today, along with other corporation-backed sides like Sahara Warriors and Vodafone Royals.

“Corporations like the Oberoi Hotels or Sahara, which don’t have any family interest in the sport, are now supporting the game in a big way," says Rathore, who also serves as the Indian ambassador to the Federation of International Polo. “This is because polo has that air of royalty, so there’s a strong luxury connection. Not many games have that pride of place in the diaspora of Indian sports."

A significant result of new money coming into the sport has been the recent influx of thoroughbred horses. “A lot of corporates and patrons have brought in horses that are specifically bred and trained for polo," says Rathore. “Previously, 99% of horseflesh in India was bred for racing, and polo got the rejects. With better horses, the overall quality of the sport improves—the best player in the world can’t perform if he’s not well-mounted."

A commitment to polo is inevitably kindled by a love for the animal. Polo players begin as riders, and while some branch off in favour of gentler equestrian sports like showjumping and dressage, thrill seekers gravitate towards polo. “All good players own between 6-10 horses. Because you need a new horse for each chukker, if not more," says Siddhant Sharma, a first-generation player with the Rajnigandha Achievers team. “This is why sponsors with resources can help the game. The average cost of each horse is between Rs10-15 lakh. Plus, there’s the cost of food, groomsmen, medicine, which is easily another Rs20,000 a month."

Animal participation in the sport, however, could be on the verge of a dramatic leap. In Argentina, the polo capital of the world, the game has spurred some of the most cutting-edge innovation in biotechnology. In 2016, Adolfo Cambiaso, an exceptional 10-goal player, participated in the Argentine Open (“polo’s Wimbledon") with six clones of a beloved horse that had to be euthanized. This may not be possible in India at present but Eduardo Novillo Astrada, president of the Argentinian polo association, acknowledges that the polo giants need to increase exchanges with the sport’s country of birth. “India is where it all started, and it’s our great debt to give back," says Astrada. “When you’re the best team in the world, kids start playing the sport from a very young age. We want that to be the case in other parts of the world."

In the international sporting arena, however, the game still holds little influence. Polo has not been a competitive sport at the Olympics since 1936, and will be only a demonstration sport at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympic Games. Still, the Indian polo community is largely optimistic about the future of the game. Polo has always managed to rope in new patrons, whether it’s the royals, the army or deep-pocket industrialists, and their commitment often spans generations. It is an absorbing, addictive sport, says Parekh, and for players like him, there are only two ways out—“either you’re seriously injured or you go bankrupt".

The new guard

Meet Indian polo’s most exciting young players

Shamsheer Ali, 34

The formidable Ali brothers—Faisal, Shamsheer, Basheer and Hamza—are regulars on the polo field. Shamsheer found early success and played the Junior World Cup in Colombia in 1995 at the age of 11. The Hyderabad native is known for his exceptional stickwork and dribbling skills (he even featured on the show Ripley’s Believe It Or Not), and at +6-goals, is one of the highest handicapped players in India.

Abhimanyu Pathak (centre). Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Abhimanyu Pathak, 35

A first-generation +5-goal professional player, Pathak was named the Most Valuable Player of the Tournament at the 2017 BMW Indian Open Polo Championship, the most coveted polo trophy in the country. Pathak plays for the Sona Polo team sponsored by industrialist Sunjay Kapur.

Pranav Kapur, 25

An up-and-coming +2-goal player, Kapur is known for his aggressive playing style. The Bengaluru native is an alumnus of the Army Service Corps Centre and College, and one of the biggest successes from the city’s nascent polo scene.

Siddhant Sharma, 25

The Delhi-based +3-goal player proved to be a valuable addition to the 2017 World Cup squad by scoring two crucial goals in the qualifier match against Pakistan. Sharma is now one of the most dependable players on the Rajnigandha Achievers team.

Photo: Instagram@PachoJaipur
Photo: Instagram@PachoJaipur

Padmanabh Singh, 19

The son of Diya Kumari and Narendra Singh, also known as Pacho, is the youngest Indian polo player to play on a World Cup team. Singh has also played (and won) against Britain’s Prince William, a rare left-handed polo player, at the 2017 Maserati Royal Charity Polo match.

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