Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Missing Ralph Lauren

When most people think of polo, they likely don't think of India. I know I didn't. However, upon closer inspection (confirmed by a short trip to Wikipedia), the modern variant of the game was actually born in this fine country. In fact, the extent of my polo knowledge prior to Saturday was that (1) there's a fairly high barrier of entry into the game (i.e., it takes a LOT of money), (2) Julia Roberts attended a polo match without knowing the proper etiquette in Pretty Woman, (3) you have to play with your right hand, which as a left-hander always seemed a little discriminatory, and (4) Ralph Lauren has exploited the purported lifestyle associated with the sport to countless riches.

Needless to say, when my boss suggested an informal leadership team activity to Saturday's polo match in Delhi, I was looking forward to a new experience where I might be able to extend this admittedly limited knowledge.
Army Polo and Riding Club, New Delhi
The locale for Saturday's match changed from the expected Jaipur Polo Grounds (which even with a name like that is located in Delhi) to grounds near the Delhi Cantonment at a place called Nicholson Ranges. Apparently, there was a big match at the Jaipur Grounds on Sunday and they were trying to save wear and tear on the field.

The rules of polo are fairly simple. There are four chukkers (basically a period, it's the Hindi word for "round") of seven minutes. The clock stops for penalties and horse changes. Teams are handicapped based on past performance (I asked my boss if there was any wagering involved based on the handicap system; he looked at me a little quizzically and then suggested we start a new business) and the team with the most goals wins.
The referee looks for a second opinion. I'm sure the suspense is killing you. (It counted.)
It's a rough game and each player has upwards of six polo ponies that they swap out at least every chukker. The horses, which I'm sure are well cared for, get absolutely exhausted while playing, and it's not uncommon to see sweat pouring from their necks. My boss, who knows a thing or two about the game, claimed that the outcome is based approximately 60% on the player and 40% on the horse, so the horse has a significant impact on the outcome of the match. The last thing about the actual ponies is that they were far smaller and shorter than I expected. Upon further reflection, it makes sense based on the agility required from the animals to quickly change direction. I was surprised, however, when looking back at my pictures at the relative size of the players to the horses. Granted, the players aren't jockey-sized, but the horses aren't exactly thoroughbred-sized either.
Probably a little tough to hit the ball from that position.
The field is huge, upwards of 300 yards in length, so if the action isn't near you, it can be difficult to keep your attention; however, when the players come near, it's an impressive set of sights and sounds, including the colors of the jerseys and the stampeding hooves chasing after the ball. It's a rough game. It's also a wonder more players and ponies are seriously injured during the game. I'm shocked more players don't come into contact with the wildly swinging mallets. Of course, those mallets may just seem to be wildly swinging to a new viewer.
Speaking of wildly swinging mallets, check out the guy in the middle.
Outside of watching the match, it provides a great photography opportunity. Even if most of the 200+ shots I took basically look the same, it's an incredibly cool sport to capture on film (or, more accurately, a digital memory card) and helps provide a little additional entertainment to someone that only loosely understands what is taking place.
Transporting polo ponies. Pretty much like any other transport service in India.
The match was one of my favorite new and (what really makes it cool) unexpected experiences in India. As usual, it's a country that never ceases to surprise.

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