In many ways, Rupa Rani Tirkey’s best shot of Tuesday’s Lawn Bowls Women’s Four final between India and South Africa was one that ultimately made no difference to the score.
With India slightly ahead in the sixth of 15 Ends, she went in for her final shot with the jack nestled between two Indian team blue balls, very close to the edge of the ditch. With a South African riposte from Johanna Snyman to come, she could have played it safe and rolled her blue ball somewhere close to the Indian clutch and put her team in a more comfortable position.
Instead, the 34-year-old Indian skip — the one to throw last — let a ball roll through the outer lane, bending late and continuing to the jack. It nudged an Indian ball and just missed contact with the jack. The momentum carried him to the edge of the ditch, and he seemed to gather his thoughts for a moment before rolling over gently.
It came to nothing, but was so daring to think that team manager Anju Luthra grinned in appreciation and even gave her opponents her approving glances.
As a skip, Rupa Rani’s job with the Indian team in recent days has been tougher than most in the four-team competition. She has to guide her teammates – Lovely Choubey, Pinki and Nayanmoni Saikia – through their two shots before it’s her turn. By this time, the collection of balls around the jack, also known as the head, is a block of red and blue, with little room to move for her to work with.
Imagine being given a painting that is only three quarters finished, and then being blindfolded before you get your brush and colors. The strokes you then add will determine how your painting will ultimately look. The pressure on the skip ahead of her turn is similar; there’s pressure from both delivery and actual execution, requiring icy nerves and red-hot precision.
Think of her as MS Dhoni, that other quiet athlete from Jharkhand who is known for his ability to finish, but with a twist: he can’t quite get the ball in his eye. Because the head is always along undulations on the other sides of the lawn, the skip essentially goes by what she sees and tries to avoid what she can’t. If you don’t do it right, you risk disrupting your team’s previous positions, or worse, helping the opponents get their balls in better places.
In such difficult conditions, Rupa Rani has performed consistently for India in the last two days of the competition. Her stunning final shot to round out the semi-final win against New Zealand left India one behind and needed an all-time winner.
‘We came to the final to win’
Rupa Rani Tirkey on India’s Historic Lawn Bowls Gold ��️ pic.twitter.com/BeAxj4N8uc
— ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) August 2, 2022
On Tuesday, she took India to an 8-2 lead at one point, before the South Africans launched a blistering comeback. Even with that, Rupa Rani finished the eighth End by first knocking two South African balls away from the jack from close range and then knocking the jack away from a clutch of red South African balls to narrow their lead before the end.
When India came under pressure — she saw a six point lead evaporate to a 10-8 deficit — she finished the 12th end with a shot that hit the jack from the forehand side and squirmed the next through the backhand to within inches. of the and sign India level. In a narrow-margin game, it was a little bit of momentum that went a long way in wresting gold from what at the time seemed like the inevitability of South Africa.
In a team sport, Rupa Rani was head and shoulders above both her teammates and her opponents in a memorable week for India at the Commonwealth Games. She was a calm but decisive conductor when instructing her compatriots, and she was unfailingly brilliant when it came to seizing moments for her team.
India found unlikely heroes in a sport that most of the country wouldn’t even have cared much about before Tuesday. And in Rupa Rani Tirkey, his most unlikely star.