Wearing a red T-shirt with Delhi inscribed on it, Harsh Vardhan Sarda lifts a 14-pound ball and focuses on the ten pins facing him.
After a moment’s deliberation, he glides across the alley and rolls the ball, followed by an outcry of “strike” from the bystanders. A regular at BLU-O, a 24-lane bowling alley in Gurgaon, Sarda effortlessly knocks down all 10 pins for the fourth time in a row. Not many of those watching him realise that in this “effortless” move, Sarda is actively burning calories.
Bowling, after an indifferent start in the mid-’90s, is back as a fitness sport rather than as a form of recreation. There are 350-400 bowling alleys in India today, up from 200 or so two years ago.
“If taken seriously, bowling is like a personal gym,” says Sarda, a men’s national bowling champion at the tournaments organised by the Bangalore-based Tenpin Bowling Federation of India (TBF). “When you bowl, you are pulling and pushing simultaneously, and that too with a heavy weight. This tones various muscles, trims the waistline and increases body strength.”
Like other forms of exercise, bowling too demands a full body warm-up. In this case, it involves lifting and rolling the ball repeatedly down the alley. “The warm-up exercises alone can help burn up to 200 calories in 10 minutes!” says Sarda. While age, weight and stamina count, “an adult weighing 65 kg can burn 160 to 180 calories in an hour’s game of bowling,” says Ishi Khosla, clinical nutritionist and director, Whole Foods India. Interestingly, an 18-hole game of golf burns 3,000 calories in three hours (provided you carry your bag), while an hour on the treadmill at 6 km per hour burns 500 calories.
“Bowling requires strength, flexibility and coordination which is why it improves cardiovascular health and body stamina,” says Zeeshan Ahmad, consultant physiotherapist at the Rotary Physiotherapy Clinic in south Delhi. “It helps burn accumulated fat as you flex your muscles with every twist, swing and turn. The stretching and flexing provides enough exercise for the tendons, ligaments, muscles and joints in your arms. Many muscle groups are involved in the bowling action, including the forearms, shoulder, back, torso, hips and legs,” he says, adding a word of caution for patients with knee problems.
Right posture is the key to being a good bowler, says Sarda, correcting the misconception that the secret to a “strike” lies in running up to the alley, pausing and throwing the ball.
“The ‘stop and bowl’ technique can damage the knees. The perfect technique is to slide and bowl, avoiding any injuries.”
“It is one of the emerging sports in the country,” says TBF India Secretary General R Kannan. The federation conducts inter-state team championships and individual competitions across the country to spot young talent. This year, the federation plans to launch the National Bowling League comprising championships for amateurs, corporate team tournaments as well as a national tour for professionals across six to seven cities. “With the increasing number of bowling centres, youngsters are taking up the game professionally,” he adds.
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This was not the case 15 years ago. In 1995-96, several American companies such as AMF Bowling and Brunswick Bowling had set up bowling alleys in various parts of the country; but they failed to create an impact. “The reason for the failure was the absence of large-scale growth. Unlike today, malls were rare then and large footfalls impossible. People were thinking small, and could not promote a family entertainment centre successfully,” says MakeMytrip Founder and CEO Deep Kalra who launched AMF Bowling Inc’s South Asian operations in 1995 and managed it for four years.
“These centres lacked infrastructure of international standards and didn’t pump in enough money to promote the game,” adds PVR Cinemedia CEO Gautam Dutta. “They didn’t have enough non-bowling avenues to fall back on when the game didn’t pick up. The meltdown in the latter half of the last decade didn’t help this capital-intensive business,” adds Dutta who is also the CEO of BLU-O, India’s largest bowling centre. At that time, bowling was positioned as a leisure activity, something you did over the weekend to unwind. Clearly, that positioning didn’t work.
This time, the alleys have played on fitness — the new fad among the urban upwardly mobile. The stakes too are higher. In the mid-1990s, bowling centres had, on an average, six lanes and were set up with a total investment of Rs 75 lakh to Rs 1 crore. Such a project now costs at least Rs 10 crore. “Companies that ventured into the bowling business back then broke even in about two years, while some never did,” recalls Kalra. It’s a different story now. “With the growth of large malls, bowling alleys such as BLU-O and Future Bowl are doing well. And they recover their costs in a year or so,” says Kalra. BLU-O, which is a little over two years old, gets 1.2 million visitors per year. Kalra, however, does not plan to return to the bowling business anytime soon. “I like clicks more than bricks,” he jokes.
Today, people like the Sardas, nicknamed the “first family of bowling”, have made bowling an intrinsic part of their lifestyle. Along with his wife, Anuradha, Sarda’s children are passionate about the game. His son, Dhruv, quit his job as an animator and went on to become a professional bowler. “Sitting all day in an animation studio, I weighed close to 78 kilos. Today, I weigh 62 kilos,” says Dhruv. “When we train for the championships, we focus on fitness and do various free-hand exercises along with rock climbing,” he adds. Another regular, Shaleen Gulati, 26, ensures he goes bowling at least once a week. “I’ve been bowling since the age of 18 and I’m addicted to it. It’s a good exercise, a stress-buster and a lot of fun.”
So is bowling a sport or a recreation? “A bit of both,” says Indesign International Managing Director Nawal Khanna. “Right now, bowling is a profitable business; so every fun and entertainment centre will have bowling as its core, with other games added to it,” says Khanna, whose company designs such centres. “In the next three years, at least 500 bowling centres will come up,” he adds.
Sarda believes bowling can cure several ailments such as arthritis. “I would recommend bowling to everyone for three reasons. One, anyone can pick up this sport after seven lessons or so. Two, you can bowl at the age of eight as well as 80. And most importantly, you can stay fit while enjoying the ambience without any need to visit a gym!”
Bowling alleys such as BLU-O regularly organise corporate bowling tournaments and matches between professionals and amateurs hoping to encourage young athletes to take up bowling.
“Bowling is the fastest growing indoor sport in India,” says Khanna who manages several entertainment centre projects in Raipur, Warangal, Hyderabad, Panchkula and Meghalaya with small and big bowling alleys as their core interest. “In the capital and surrounding areas, several centres such as Future Bowl at Essex Farms and EOD in Noida are doing extremely well,” he adds.
Suryavir Sood, a business technology analyst at Deloitte Consulting who visits Future Bowl almost every weekend, says, “I can socialise, listen to good music and break the monotony of gyming.” It’s this idea of fitness with fun which has a number of people swapping their sneakers for bowling shoes.