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Little known to the big league

City duo strike a blow for Bowls

Mohammed Shami may not have looked remotely threatening at Southampton the other day but two Calcuttans came within “inches” of bowling their country to a Commonwealth bronze in another part of the UK on Friday.

Samit Malhotra, 40, and Kamal Kumar Sharma, 49, aren’t bowlers whose talent somehow escaped everyone’s attention in the hullabaloo of the Eden Gardens.

Away from the limelight that chases a cricketer — harsh scrutiny, some might say, after Southampton — the Calcutta duo have left their stamp on an international sport that few in the city know about and even fewer might have played.

Malhotra and Sharma’s near brush with bronze in the Lawn Bowls event at the 20th Commonwealth Games in Glasgow — Australia snatched the medal — has given this city that fawns on its stars two heroes whose existence they would have been unaware of.

Just as well that the Lawn Bowls duo’s performance has come at a time when Calcutta is rediscovering a forgotten sport called kabaddi through the first Pro Kabaddi League and a local franchise called the Bengal Warriors.

Lawn Bowls is played between two teams with a simple objective: get your “bowls” as close as possible to a small white ball called a “jack”. The team with the bowl closest to the jack earns points (called “shots”) and, like in most sports, the team with the higher points wins.

But unlike other sports that frown on 40 like it were 80, Lawn Bowls is described as a game that can be played by anyone between the ages of nine and 90. In that respect, Malhotra and Sharma might yet have miles to bowl!

In the bronze-medal match on Friday, the city duo were part of the Men’s Fours team up against top-ranked Australia. The underdogs conceded their early lead at the last moment to finish at 14-15. In the semi-final too, India had let go of the lead to lose 12-14 to England, again the slimmest of margins.

“This truly is a remarkable performance and a great achievement by India. We nearly won a medal out of nowhere and that too with two Calcuttans in the team,” said Devesh Srivastava, captain of the Bengal Bowls team.

Srivastava, Malhotra and Sharma are all members of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club (RCGC), which has the only natural bowls lawn in the state and has produced several international players. But for a last-minute injury, Srivastava too would have been in Glasgow.

Malhotra and Sharma’s life beyond Lawn Bowls is as interesting, if not unconventional, as their choice of sport. Malhotra, an alumnus of Don Bosco School and St. Xavier’s College, owns Band Box, a dry cleaning chain. Sharma, a resident of Lord Sinha Road, is a tax lawyer by profession.

About 20 bowls players were huddled around a computer at the RCGC on Friday evening for live updates of the match on the Commonwealth Games website because the Ten Sports network was then telecasting other events. High-fives and handshakes followed each round or “end” as India took the lead early and maintained it till the 14th round. The last round saw Australia scoring 2-0 to win the play-off 15-14.

“It is heartbreaking to see us get so close and lose at the last moment. Had our boys brought home a medal, it would have given the sport a big boost,” Srivastava said.

By the time the “deferred live telecast” of the match was on television, Srivastava and friends had dispersed.

The sport might look easy to someone watching Lawn Bowls for the first time but it isn’t, as any player would testify. The fact that the bowls do not travel in a straight line adds to the tactical challenge. Bowls are designed to travel along a curved path because of a weight bias produced by their shape.

Lawn Bowls is usually played on a large, rectangular, precisely levelled and manicured grass or synthetic surface known as a bowling green, which is divided into parallel playing strips called rinks. The sport has multiple formats like singles, doubles, triples and fours.

“Lawn Bowls is a deep passion for all of us and few know that at the nationals in December 2013, Bengal won five of the eight gold medals at stake. We have written to the government several times for help but there’s been no response,” Srivastava said.

Maybe Glasgow will change that, just as Pro Kabaddi seems to be doing for an entertaining but much neglected sport.