When India’s lawn bowls team touched down in the United Kingdom a week before the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, it didn’t have training access at the rinks in Victoria Park, Leamington Spa. The fact that the side didn’t have a coach for a while didn’t help either.
“We didn’t know what to do then. We searched on the internet where the nearest bowling clubs were. We called quite a few of them, but they were all too expensive,” Sunil Bahadur, member of the men’s team, tells Sportstar.
But on Tuesday, the Indian women - Rupa Rani Tirkey, Pinki, Lovely Choubey, and Nayanmoni Saikia - scripted history by winning the country’s first ever gold medal in lawn bowls. South Africa began the contest meekly, unable to register a single point for five consecutive ends. The scoreline read 8-2 in India’s favour after End 7 when Esme Kruger’s tactful thinking combined with some very accurate attempts wrested the advantage and South Africa led 10-8 after 11 ends. However, the Indians prevailed in the end.
The miracle win wouldn’t have been possible without some unexpected help from Michael Spiro, a north Londoner. The president of the Bishopswood Bowling Club in Norrice Lea, Spiro, agreed to accommodate the Indian contingent for free.
“They didn’t charge a penny from us. Nothing asked,” Navneet Singh, a member of the Indian team says.
Spiro, in attendance during the women’s fours finals, says, “They were surprised that we didn’t charge them. For us, it is not a revenue strip. We are a ‘not for profit’ club. We collect fees from members to cover the running cost of the club. They came here and made us feel good. That was payment enough.”
He still remembers how India sent in an extensive but basic list of requirements before heading to his club. “They asked us simple things like available storage, equipment, the speed of the green – we didn’t even know what that meant then – what hours they can do, whether there are pushers or jacks, whether they’d be able to bring their own equipment. But it was all too simple, really. By the time I reached the third item on the list, I was like, ‘Who’s reading this? These are just basics,’” Spiro chuckles.
“We said whatever you need, we will help you. It was a big list, but we said, ‘No worries. Just let us know when you need us’.”
Spiro also brought along club captain Michael Hart and bowlers Bradley Bendell and Brett Schuman for Tuesday’s game. The whole group was cheering for the Indian women’s team. Midway into the second end, Schuman even asked for a few Indian flags from Navneet, which they waved about; they even stuck a few [flags] to their caps.
“They made us sweat a bit, but they did get over the line, didn’t they?” Schuman chimes in.
“The moment they entered the finals here yesterday, they were like ‘please come here’. And we drove up here all the way from north-west London. We couldn’t decline their request. We thought watching them, cheering for them, would mean a lot to them. With the result, it was all worth it,” Spiro says.
Spiro found it difficult to believe most of the members of the Indian team started bowling only in 2007 at the National Games in Guwahati, while preparing for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
“What? That is unbelievable what they have achieved then. They are first-class bowlers,” Spiro says.
“They are lovely people. It was great to have a team of a completely different culture come to our club. Can’t believe we housed the best in the world there a few days back. The athletes are now gold medallists,” he adds.
The best part, Bendell and Hart add, was the that the Indians allowed the duo to play against them. Hart says, “They practised against each other, exercised and then they played with us. We beat them most of the times. I am joking. (laughs) We didn’t beat them even once.”
For Spiro, the attitude of the Indians appealed to him the most. “There were some other teams who wanted to be at our club, but they wanted exclusivity. They wanted nobody else to play with them, watch them or be there at the clubhouse. India didn’t ask for anything like that. If they would have, maybe the attitude would have been different. We’ve got signed shirts of the champions now,” he says.
The first thing that team manager Anju Luthra did after her wards clinched the gold medal with a final score of 17-10 was to rush over to Spiro and Co. and thank them with a small packet of dry fruits.
When asked about it, Spiro smiles. “Yeah, didn’t I already tell you they are a bunch of lovely people?”
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