At the Amoeba Bowling Centre in Bengaluru, groups of people exult at the sound of destruction – of balls (looking like oversized marbles) of different colours, varying sizes and weights, collapsing the triangularly arranged ten synthetic pins on different lanes.

There’s a balding guy, representing Delhi, perhaps in his early-30s, with a little paunch, picking up a dirty green and black ball of 11 pounds. He exhales heavily and looks straight at the alley that’s 60 feet long from the release line to the top-most of the ten pins. He dogtrots to the release line, slants his right leg behind, stretches his left hand side-ward and with his right, releases the ball from approximately the centre of the bowling lane. The ball starts to roll towards to the 9 ¼ inch, concave gutter on the right, then slowly moves leftwards before swerving in and knocking all ten pins out.

Strike.

His rivals and teammates competing in Uniply 28th National Tenpin Bowling Championships, who spectate while awaiting their turns, clap in appreciation. He high-fives them and me while I try to make sense of the scores, strike, players, their wrist supports, thumb socks and all.

“It’s like that in bowling, it’s chilled out, everyone cheers for everyone,” a Maharashtra bowler laughs, when I look a little perplexed at the stranger who just high-fived me.

“Yaar, just play national level, don’t go to the international level,” another bowler tells the stranger in Hindi.

Dhruv Sarda, 29, is a four-time national champion.
Dhruv Sarda, 29, is a four-time national champion.

But Dhruv Sarda, 29, is not a stranger and he belongs to the international level. He’s a four-time national champion and a bronze medal winner at the Asian Indoor Games 2017.

For him, the sport’s a family affair. His dad, at 65, is a national bowler. Mom took to it after dad. His married sister, who’s in New Zealand, is trying out for the national team there.

He still remembers his first-ever game. “It was in 32nd Milestone, which still exists in Delhi. I scored a 63. I was six at the time and was wanting to bowl desperately after watching my dad. The ball was too heavy, but my dad said, ‘just go there and enjoy yourself’. I was so happy I cried.”

Costly affair

When Dhruv was six, in the ‘90s, bowling, as a sport, was largely unknown in India. Whoever I spoke to during the Nationals concur that bowling, even now, is largely seen here as a leisure activity than a sport.

In Korea – one of the best bowling nations – if you’re in the national team and perform well, you can be the country’s Virat Kohli, says Shoumick Datta, 18, who won the bronze medal at the Asian School Games last year.

In India, when Dhruv tells an airport security guard that he’s a bowler, the guard incredulously replies, “But I have not seen you in the IPL.”

The Ten Pin Bowling Federation of India (TBF(I)) secretary R Kannan explains that the expensive import of equipment has made bowling centres promote bowling as a fun activity than a sport.

“The set up cost for a bowling centre is quite high. Everything has to be imported, including a spare part. Nothing can be made locally. Obviously, the bowling centers have to commercialse to monetise the whole exercise.”

In top bowling countries, national coach Andrew Frawley says, bowling centres conduct tournaments, hire coaches, and spot talent. “In India, that sort of a setup isn’t there. In Australia, where I come from, 50% of the business of bowling is sport, 50% is fun. India needs a little bit of time to catch up, compared to the rest of the world.”

Changing techniques

To catch up, India also needs oiling machines.

From the beginning of 20th century till the 1990s, bowling lanes, made of wood, were oiled to avoid scratches and dents; then, when synthetic tracks replaced the wooden ones in the ‘90s, big vacuum-cleaner-like machines laid invisible oil patterns to affect the difficulty of the game. This brought forth a paradigm shift in release technique: from straight (the direction of ball is the same) to hook (the ball swerves).

“In India, 90% of them bowl straight. Maybe it’s 80% now. Most people bowl straight because most bowling centres don’t have oiling machines,” says Frawley. “When you don’t have an oiling machine, the ball slides and doesn’t hook. That game – the straight game – was played in the 1970s. The rest of the world moved on to the hook game. Scores can be higher with the hook game. [The absence of the hook game] is probably the biggest drawback for India.”

Because of the lack of enough junior programmes, Indian bowlers, coach Frawley reckons, start quite late compared to their counterparts from top bowling countries. “Most of them are involved in the junior programmes, under-18 type of competition. Very rarely do you find someone who take it up late. When I was coaching in the middle east, many took up the game when they were about 25. By the time they got to the top, they were in the mid-30s. It’s similar in India. The youngest person I’ve met here is maybe 17.”

Shaik Abdul Hameed’s gold medals in the singles and masters events of the Commonwealth Bowling Championships in 2002 is perhaps India’s earliest major international success. Ever since, India, Kannan reckons, has sent teams to Asian and Commonwealth Championships.

In 2008, the TBF(I) – recognised by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports – started a mission to win a medal at the 2014 Asian Games. “We handpicked boys who had the potential in the age group of 18-21 so that at the Asian Games they are 24-27. We picked up about 24 bowlers - men and women put together,” Kannan says.

National coach Andrew Frawley (centre), 55, with some of the top Indian bowlers.
National coach Andrew Frawley (centre), 55, with some of the top Indian bowlers.

The sports ministry’s funding in 2010 helped the core team get intensive training. But it stopped the next year and the federation had to seek the support of private sponsors. The bowlers were on good form in the lead up to the 2014 Asian Games: Hameed won the ABF Tour event, finished fourth in the Thailand Open; Dhruv finished fourth in the Malaysian Open.

“Our team was in Malaysia, training there and they were ready to fly to Incheon, tickets were also booked,” Kannan says. “But the government then said the sports disciplines that are funded by the Ministry will only be sent. It was a very random decision.”

Indian bowlers, unlike their top international counterparts, don’t get paid to play the sport. They leave their businesses, take leaves from work, and, in some cases, pay out of their own pockets to pursue passion. So, when the Asian Games dreams were shattered, most of them wanted to quit.

“But we all had that dream to win big,” says Dhruv. So, they persisted, practiced more and performed better. In 2015, Chennai’s Shabbir Dhankot won the Asian Bowling Championships silver medal. In 2016, Akaash Ashok Kumar of Karnataka won a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Championships. Next year, Dhruv and Shabbir won the Asian Indoor Games bronze.

Support from sports ministry

The results convinced the sports ministry to support TBF(I) in preparing the bowlers for this year’s Asian Games.

The intensive training camps, exposure trips and Frawley’s tips, Dhruv says, have helped the bowlers prepare well for the Jakarta Games starting on August 18.

Coach Frawley agrees: “This time, they are better prepared, more confident because they won medals at the Commonwealth Championships, Asian Indoor Games – against the same teams that they will compete [at the Asian Games]. They are going with a different mindset [compared to 2014].”

A medal in the Asian Games, Dhruv, Frawley and Kannan concur, will help popularise the sport in India. It could be the game’s biggest break in its four-decades-old existence in the country.