They thought we’ll be easy to beat: An Indian team blazes a trail to Bridge silver

For Anil Padhye, it was the late evening deals with his maternal grandparents in the 1980s that got him hooked to bridge. His teammate, Ashok Goel, stayed up late at night to master the skills of the card game. And their captain, R Krishnan, took to the sport casually at first, in his hostel room at IIT Madras, exactly 50 years ago in 1972.

The trio was part of a six-member team that won India’s first-ever silver medal at the World Bridge Championship earlier this month. All of them are in their early-to-mid 60s and hail from varied backgrounds — stockbroker to industrialist, banker to publisher.

Subrata Saha, Sukamal Das and Rajesh Dalal were the other members of the team that defeated heavyweights like the US en route to the final of the seniors category, where they lost to a strong Polish side.

“It’s an important moment for the sport in the country,” Padhye said. “For the first time, an Indian team has reached the final of the World Championship. This augurs well for the sport and hopefully will change the perception among the masses.”

Popularly known as the ‘Bermuda Bowl’, the World Championship in the Italian city of Salsomaggiore attracted 24 teams from across the globe. After the round-robin stage, India finished fifth, qualifying for the knockout rounds where the top-eight teams made the cut.

There was no lack of drama.

“The team that finishes on top after the round-robin stage gets to pick the team from the top-eight they want to play in the quarterfinals,” explained Krishnan. “In this case, the US, which had fielded two teams, was first and chose us, assuming we’ll be easy to beat.”

After hours of heavy dealing, which saw both teams taking turns to get into the lead, India recorded an upset and progressed to the semi-final, where they defeated France. That ensured a historic finish, given that no Indian team had ever reached that far in a World Championship.

In the final, India took on Poland, which had five former world champions in its team. The European giants proved too strong, recording a 45-point win over six sets and 96 deals.

Despite the loss in the final, the bridge community has hailed their performance as path-breaking. Cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar, whose father-in-law Anand Mehta was a bridge player himself, led the accolades, tweeting that “age isn’t a barrier to be the best in the world”.

Bridge made its debut at the 2018 Asian Games and India won three medals — gold in men’s pair, bronze in men’s team and bronze in mixed team.

Padhye, who has partnered Mehta in the past, hoped their silver medal will prove to be a catalyst for change, and attract younger players to the sport. “There’s a stigma attached to the sport, unfortunately, and many people mistake it for gambling,” he said.

Padhye, who runs a printing business, recalled how his grandmother “got restless if she did not play a couple of deals every evening”.

“It’s a stimulating activity that keeps you alert and agile. And even though it’s a cerebral game, that does not mean physical fitness is less important. Every day, we have to play almost eight hours — and to do that for 10 days in a high-pressure tournament like the World Championship, it’s challenging.”

The average age of the sport in India is believed to be around 55-60 years, with people from varying backgrounds getting addicted to it.

Krishnan believes one thing ties them all: A high IQ level. “It demands high levels of concentration and analytical skills. In India, there isn’t a lack of intellect so this game suits us in that sense,” he said.

The challenge, Goel said, is to make it accessible to the youth. Like Padhye, Goel, an industrialist, insisted that bridge is a thinking man’s game that is more about mental stimulation, rather than gambling.

“It’s important to realise this so that we can make this sport appealing for the younger generation and take it to schools. A lot of other countries are excelling because they have bridge in their school programmes. Unless we bring younger people to the sport, it won’t flourish as much as it should,” he said. “I hope our silver medal will bring about that change.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button