India’s best spin bowler is 55-year-old Harsh Vardhan Sarda.
He prefers, however, to bowl underarm on a 60ft polyurethane track—knocking down 10 15-inch pins instead of wickets.
On a Saturday afternoon at the Blu-O bowling alley in Gurgaon’s Ambience Mall, the gaggles of giggling college teens are unaware that the diminutive, calm man carefully lining his approach on the lane next to them is the men’s national tenpin bowling champion. Their ungainly waddles and clumsy technique stand at glorious friction with Sarda’s measured stride.
Harsh Vardhan Sarda. Sanjay Arora
He takes one step, then two, three, four, glides across the rest of the approach as if preparing for take-off and release: The ball spins down the lane as Sarda stands frozen in a forward lunge, arms held sideways. He knocks down all 10 pins. A “strike”, his third in a row.
“At 55, I can play 20 games at a stretch without breaking a sweat. I have no problems with diabetes or blood pressure,” says the three-time national tournament winner, dressed in a red T-shirt with “Delhi” written in faded alphabets on the back.
Sarda graduated from Delhi’s Deshbandhu College in 1973 with an arts degree, but he’d already set up his own company by then—Super Switch Pvt. Ltd, which manufactured auto parts for Bajaj scooters and later, for Yamaha and Rajdoot. He ran the company for 20 years before starting his current venture, an interior design firm called Sherlak (India). “I started thinking seriously about bowling after I got married in 1988. Till then I bowled for fun back in the early 1970s, when I was in college. I wanted to settle on one sport that I could focus on.”
Sarda signed up for the 1989 national tourney, then held only in Delhi with local bowlers. He bowled alongside Ajay Bijli, chairman and managing director, PVR Cinemas, and stood third in his first attempt at serious bowling.
Secret weapon: Harsh Vardhan Sarda is India’s first ‘spin’ bowler, a style different from the ‘hook’ method most Indian bowlers prefer. Sanjay Arora
It was all positive from then on. “I’ve never finished worse than third in a national tournament in my career so far,” he says.
He honed his craft over the next decade, watching video cassettes and then video CDs (VCDs) on technique in the absence of official training. In 1998, he perfected a new technique, a flamboyant Chinese style of release called “spin”. “It’s a beautiful technique, especially since lane conditions in Indian bowling alleys are tricky,” he says. “The ball tends to overreact because of the temperature and humidity.”
His previous style, an American technique called “hook”, involved skidding the ball till about 36ft into the lane and then curving it inwards like “a leg break to a right-handed batsman”. A spin bowler, on the other hand, throws it straight, rotating the ball on its own axis. “I think I was the first to introduce spin in India. Getting the accuracy is difficult, but it works great when lane conditions are against you.”
Armed with his new secret weapon, Sarda won his first national tournament in 1999 in Mumbai, held outside of Delhi for the first time. That victory took him to the Bowling World Cup in Las Vegas the same year, where he stood 68th among 103 countries. He won the nationals again in 2004 and, most recently, August—beating competitors who were 25 years younger than him.
“He’s a real champion player,” says Shankar Ganesh, a fellow bowler and lane technician who has been involved with the sport since 1996. “When you watch him play, you want to learn from him—he makes it look so studied and researched.”
Sarda has so far bowled two perfect games in his career. A perfect game is a series of 10 strikes for a score of 300. The first happened as part of a casual team game at South Delhi Club in 2000. The second was in 2008 at a practice game in Noida’s The Great India Place mall, where a doctor from Escorts Hospital who’d come to bowl with his family cheered him on. “You’ve made it look so simple!” the doctor told him in awe, and insisted on signing the scoresheet to record the event.
All in the game: Sarda, with wife Anuradha (in red) and daughter Sugandha. Sanjay Arora
Sarda’s family wasn’t going to be left behind while he bowled his way to the top. His partner Anuradha Sarda is a national-level women’s player who’s been bowling since 1999. “He was so much into the game and it’s so boring to watch,” she says. “So I thought why not? It’s great exercise, we get to bond as a family and travel the world for tournaments.” With an international itinerary that has included Las Vegas, Macau, Singapore and Bangkok, her reasoning has so far passed the test.
Their son, 21-year-old Dhruv Sarda, left a cushy job at an animation studio to become a professional bowler. He’s part of the Ten-pin Bowling Federation of India’s newly constituted “elite” squad, which trains full-time and participates on the international circuit.
“My parents eat, sleep and drink bowling—it even dominates dinner-time conversation,” says 25-year-old Sugandha Sarda, the most recent member of the family to take to bowling. “It’s the only way to spend time with them.”
Harsh Vardhan Sarda practises twice a week, a routine that goes up to four times a week a month before any major tournament. Each session is 3 hours, consisting of both practice games and drills with knocking down single pins. “I never let anything outside affect my game—no anger, no emotion. Always try to be cool and disciplined. Bowling first.” He spends about Rs9,000 a year to drill his own personalized bowling balls, an expense he says all professional bowlers incur. The annual national-level tournaments carry a prize money pool of Rs4 lakh, with winners taking home about Rs50,000.
Bowling is now Sarda’s sole serious hobby, but till 1997 it shared equal importance with another just as obsessive: growing roses. His daughter Sugandha is named after an indigenous variety of rose perfected by rosarian and agricultural scientist B.P. Pal.
“I grew roses for 15 years. I had a bit of farmland near Vasant Kunj and I’d participate in the yearly All India Rose Show,” he says. “They put up this banner calling me the ‘King of Roses’, because I managed to grow 100 roses in a single pot year after year.” The yearly rose show bulletin grew increasingly platonic about his annual achievement. “It would say, Mr Sarda from Delhi is here again with 100 roses,” he laughs.
At 55, Sarda reckons he has at least another decade to go in the sport. “I’m looking forward to it,” he says. “There are lots of tournaments around the world which have open categories for seniors over 50 years of age.” He’s preparing for one in Thailand in June, with prize money of up to $29,000 (around Rs13.6 lakh).
As the sport continues to gain popularity in the country, Sarda isn’t resting on his laurels. “I have to make my experience count,” he says.
India’s starry-eyed younger bowlers better watch out.