The risk of a lost ball is common to many sports, but few can be as unusual, or indeed quite as pungent, as that unfolding before me on the outskirts of Jodhpur.
I am standing on the edge of a playing field in a canary yellow polo shirt and Union Jack riding helmet, anxiously waiting to try my hand at elephant polo. The match in front of me, however, has come to a standstill – as an unfortunate official digs out a ball lost deep inside a large, yellowing pile of elephant dung.
The commentator seems unperturbed – “Ah, it’s got stuck in the poo … well there really is nothing you can do about that, is there?” – and the ball is retrieved. But on-field droppings turn out to be the least of the hazards presented by this most lumbering of sports.
To its adherents, elephant polo is an increasingly mainstream pursuit. Tournaments have sprung up across south Asia. There is an annual world cup in Nepal, and even something approaching a governing body: Wepa, or the World Elephant Polo Association.
The rules seem straightforward too, and are explained in the pre-game briefing by Roddy Sale, an old-Etonian banker and longtime “ellie” polo enthusiast. He is to be our referee, and is dressed in khaki trousers, brown suede shoes and a pith helmet. There are three elephants per side, each carrying two humans: one rider, and one trainer, known as a mahoot. The latter steers the elephant; the former attempts to hit the ball.
Yet if these basics seem simple, other complications quickly become apparent. Even from the sidelines it is clear that making contact with a tiny white ball via a spindly 9ft mallet would be tricky, even were one not perched atop a 2-tonne animal. Communication is also an issue: the mahoots don’t speak English, so directing them is all but impossible.
There is a further, less obvious worry: class.
I am a guest at “British Polo Day”, a series of weekend jamborees stretching from Dubai to Singapore. On this December morning the event is making its debut in Jodhpur, a picturesque Rajasthani town better known for its pretty blue buildings and stunning hilltop rock fort.
Founders Tom Hudson and Ed Olver, two amiable university friends turned polo entrepreneurs, make a decent fist of claiming that polo is an under-exploited weapon in modern Britain’s soft-power arsenal. Even so, an upper-crust, almost imperial tinge is undeniably part of the charm of the event.
My match-day breakfast, for instance, is disturbed by distant booming. Only later is the source revealed: a 21-cannon salute, in celebration of an heir, born overnight, to the son of the local Maharaja.
Elsewhere the weekend’s entertainment is heavy on establishment contests. Eton is set to face off against Mayo College (the “Eton of India”), followed by a match between the Indian and British armies. The elephant polo is also a military affair: Cavalry vs Guards. To participate I have been given temporary regimental affiliation, on the Cavalry side.
The spectators look minded to take their polo seriously, and so fearful am I of making a fool of myself that I walk over to the staging area on the far side of the field before the match, to seek tips from the trainers.
The waiting elephants are strikingly beautiful, with long, dark eyelashes and colourful match-day face paint. All are female (the males being difficult to control) and come with inappropriate names, such as Anarkali and Chamelli, after dainty Bollywood heroines. The trainers describe the game in almost mystical terms, stressing the unknowable combination of rider, mahoot and elephant necessary for victory: “Only on the field will you know,” one tells me. This is hardly reassuring.
All this said, however, the most worrisome thing remains the most obvious: this is a sport that involves actually riding an elephant. Their vast, barrel-like bodies, in particular, seem quite unsuited for human passengers. This only becomes more apparent as I mount my own, with the help of a small wooden ladder propped up against its belly.
A subtle flick from the mahoot and the elephant rises up. We are airborne. I consider the situation. My feet are wedged wide apart, in stirrups dangling on the upper reaches of the animal’s flank. There is no saddle. Balancing precariously, and with one hand grabbing tight on to a rope wrapped round the elephant’s stomach, I take an exploratory swish and very nearly drop my mallet.
As the opening whistle blows, it is the acceleration that is most striking. Before the match a friend warned me gently that this was “not the most fast-moving of sports”. Her words come back to me as the animals lurch tentatively forward towards the ball, reaching it some 15 seconds or so later, before stopping in a clump.
The play that follows is what you might call uneven. The players lean off to either side of their mounts, hoping to catch sight of a ball hidden far below amidst a dense thicket of grey flesh. Mallets are wielded. Now and again someone even makes contact, and the ball is pushed a few feet forward. The elephants then lollop after it, stopping only occasionally to snack on a patch of grass.
Up on top it is an exhilarating experience. From the spectators’ point of view, however, I fear the proceedings provide just the visual excitement one might expect from a group of mostly stationary animals. It certainly proves testing for the commentators, and leads to much sub-Test Match Special musing, of the “oh what a wonderful sight they do make” variety.
Communication with my mahoot also proves awkward, but any grumbles on my part pale next to his own frustrations. Within minutes he has sensed my incompetence, and begins – subtly, at least at first – to grab my mallet and direct it towards the ball. Unhappily his efforts do not go unnoticed. I grimace as the commentator, grateful for a speck of intrigue, intones loudly: “Now then, not only is this one steering the elephant, he is actually helping James Crabtree steer the ball as well!”
My humiliation complete, the game is heading for a no-score draw until one of my teammates suddenly makes solid contact, and sends the ball sailing more than 20ft up the field. Exhibiting what under the circumstances might be called a burst of speed, his elephant dawdles after it.
Two further palpable hits follow, both made with envy-inspiring 360° mallet swings. One further hit and the ball dribbles over the line – to jubilation among the players, and soft murmurs of approval from the crowd.
Ultimately the other side snatches a goal back, and the game ends 1-1. It is a creditable result, and the riders congratulate each other. I am content with my performance. I made contact with the ball on a handful of occasions, some of which were unaided. I also didn’t fall off. As I dismount, aching from the legs, a nearby elephant signals its satisfaction by urinating expansively. Many litres hit the ground with a loud, sudden slap. The ball, thankfully, is nowhere nearby.
James Crabtree is the FT’s Mumbai correspondent
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