I had just enjoyed an Indian classical music concert at the Habitat Centre on Lodi Road. The whole afternoon was free before the jazz concert started at the ungodly hour of 5pm. Delhi has TimeOut online and I flicked through its pages on my smart phone like a discerning roué discarding desperate cougars on Tinder. It was the hottest mid February day in five years, just tipping 30 degrees. This wasn’t the time for a gallery or a museum; I needed some vitamin D in my ageing skin. So when Polo flashed up on the screen, I was intrigued.
The Jaipur Polo Ground wasn’t far away, just by the Racecourse. The Northern India Championship Finals sounded interesting, but I couldn’t get through on the telephone number for “executive tickets”. It sounded expensive, too. Nevertheless, off I trotted to watch the ponies.
I had brought my long lens and digital SLR camera, so I thought I might capture some good pictures. However, there were signs prohibiting photography (probably because the Polo Ground abuts the Indian Air Force Base by Safdarjung Airport). I walked through security without any problems, but then had a choice – BT or HP. Both these multinational companies sponsor polo and their teams were the warm up act.
I chose BT and blagged my way into the cheap seats in the shade. No complimentary drinks, unfortunately. I was the first spectator, so I settled down to read the Sunday newspaper. Then I looked up Polo on Wikipedia. Here are some fascinating facts:
The Sultan of Delhi was impaled on the pommel of his saddle and died, after his horse fell during a polo match in 1210 AD. About the same time in the Middle East, playing cards featured polo sticks as a suit (instead of clubs?).
Polo originated in Manipur 2,000 years ago where polo was one of the three forms of hockey – field hockey, hockey on horseback and the intriguing “wrestling hockey”. The modern rules developed after soldiers brought the sport back to Britain in the early 19th Century.
In Central Asia, Buzkashi or Kokpar are variants of polo, with two teams on horseback, few rules and a dead goat being used instead of a ball.
The friendly match finally got underway. The ponies looked magnificent. I mistakenly thought that polo ponies were small; they are actually normal-sized horses. The tail and mane are tressed and tied up neatly. They wear leggings over their fetlocks to protect against hits from the ball. They all looked very sprightly and ready-for-action. Clearly, they really enjoyed the sport.
I was expecting the riders to be decked out in fashionable Ralph Lauren gear. Instead, their clothing was functional – polished riding boots, with extra protection around their knees, tight trousers (not jodhpurs), a peaked helmet, eye protection and, obviously, a polo shirt. The polo stick also surprised me as it was supple, not rigid. Unlike in croquet, the riders hit the ball with the side of the mallet, not the end. There are four riders in each team.
The rules are complex, especially when deciding if a foul has been committed. The pitch is enormous, 300 yards long by 160 yards wide. The aim is to get the ball between two goal posts. After a goal has been scored, the teams change ends. Each chukka lasts for seven minutes of play and there can be up to eight chukkas. The game “kicks off” with an honoured guest, usually a lady, throwing in the ball from the sideline.
Despite the ban on photography, half a dozen professionals were active taking pictures of the match. Sod it, I thought, they are unlikely to clap me in irons if I use my camera. I discretely started snapping away without leaving my seat. No one seemed to mind; everyone was watching the polo.
Hewlett Packard trounced BT. The ground was firm and dusty, so there was no need to put on wellington boots and stomp in divots. The BT and HP riders lined up in front of the posh seats and received their prizes and party bags (a complimentary cell phone and a laptop, perhaps?). I surreptitiously “papped” a beautiful blonde lady who was posing for the professional photographers. Was she an entrant in the “Jilly Cooper Lookalike Competition”, I wondered?
There was a short interlude, when the Indian Cavalry put on a display of superb horsemanship. Riders leaned out of the saddle at full gallop, picked up lances, skewered targets with sabres and bayonets and even plucked handkerchiefs from the ground. The master of ceremonies had to warn the intrepid professional photographers to move back into the stands as last year, a galloping horse had fallen and the rider had been flung towards the crowd, breaking his ankle.
The two teams in the final were Equisport and Jindal Panthers. One of the Panthers was an Argentinian professional, Miguel Saravia. I thought Equisport’s Shamsheer Ali was the best player (headline “Shamsheer Smashes Five”), though his brother, Basheer Ali, was named man of the match (“Basheer Bashes Two” doesn’t make such a good headline). Equisport won 8 – 6 after six chukkas.
It was very exciting and, despite being allergic to horses, I didn’t sneeze once.