When Royal Salute whisky joins forces with the Tang Polo Club in Beijing something magical happens – the elite sport of kings becomes a frolic that anybody can enjoy, so long as they have money and a good sense of balance. Daniel Jeffreys hopped in the saddle to master the basics of stick and ball.
It’s rare to see a man perplexed by a piece of wood, but Mr Gao, a whisky enthusiast from Beijing is looking at the bamboo and hardwood implement in his hand as if it was a rocket science text book written in Sanskrit.
After swinging the stick a few times through the sultry morning air at the Tang Polo Club just outside of Beijing, Gao propped it with its handle pressed into the soft turf and examined its mallet-shaped business end, paying especially close attention to the smaller surface that would be used for striking nails, if this were a hammer and not a polo stick.
“Which part do you hit it with?” he asks. “Do you use the end bit, like bashing a gong?”
If the game was croquet, that would be correct. In that especially vicious sport, the balls are propelled with mallets from a stationary position through hoops with the smaller face of the club. But this is polo. Played on horses, with smaller balls (we are talking about the strikeable variety) and at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.
“You would be very lucky to hit anything but your horse if you tried using your stick with its end point,” says Malcolm Borwick, the polo ambassador of Royal Salute, one of the sport’s major global sponsors. “You use the broad beam of the mallet and aim to hit the ball where the stick meets the head.”
With that bit of basics of out the way, the morning could proceed. And what a morning it was. A fine day in late summer with the prospect of the China Open Polo Tournament on hand after lunch, and before that an opportunity for a motley crew of journalists, whisky lovers and friends of Tang Polo Club founder Liu Shi Lai to learn the basics of Polo.
The coach was Borwick, an internationally rated polo star who plays regularly with British royalty and is a member of the England team. He was there to get all of us hitting balls from a real horse before midday. It was a bit like having Christian Ronaldo turn up to teach a bunch of non-athletes how to score penalties in the Bernabéu, except Borwick is a lot more charming and a world-class optimist. He says:
“In about three hours, I’ll try to get you from zero to hero, from literally nothing, to riding a horse and hitting a ball.”
Although his cynical pupils wondered if Borwick had been hitting the scotch too hard the night before, he is no fantasist.
His belief that ordinary lads and lasses can be taught to play polo in a relatively short space of time is based on years of experience. And he dedicates himself to training raw recruits because he has a genuine belief that polo can be a much more accessible pastime, that the sport of kings can be enjoyed by anyone who can stay in the saddle.
“Polo has such a rich heritage and history that it’s bound to be perceived as an elitist sport, but I’ve been working really hard to take people out of the stands and put them on the field,” says Borwick. “Most of us aren’t inaccessible, snobbish and arrogant and we are usually in the stable at the crack of dawn, when other people are just coming home from nightclubs.”
But it was a club of a different feather that we had to master now. The Borwick tutorial began with all participants holding their sticks and being taught the four basic shots of polo: the Off Side Forehand, the Near Side Forehand, the Off Side Backhand and the Near Side Backhand.
We stood with our legs slightly apart and with knees bent, as if we had already climbed aboard our trusty steeds. This felt surreal, because there were no horses currently in sight, even though we had been told to conduct our practice on the field where real games would be played in a few hours.
The first of the four shots required participants to swing the mallet forward or laterally on the imaginary pony’s off side. This shot is the most common because it produces the most powerful hits. It proved to be remarkably simple to master, and soon all participants were sending polo balls flying, although few traveled in a straight line.
The near side backhand proved more complicated. For this shot the player must swing the mallet in the opposite direction of travel (backward) on the pony’s near side. A difficult shot to execute properly, it’s a powerful stroke, but one in which novices might risk castrating or decapitating their pony, or sending themselves flying from the saddle.
We were soon able to test this theory, for Borwick, ever patient, now led us to the hitting cage, where a stoic, stationary (very) and lifelike (extremely) wooden horse stood ready to bear a phalanx of neophytes.
The cage is a good example of the remarkably good facilities at the Tang Polo Club, which has made it the perfect partner for Royal Salute’s World Polo programme in China, and has also made it a magnet for Beijing socialites and their sporty spouses.
The club occupies an area of 210,000 square meters and contains two international-standard polo fields, 100 individual stables and a 5,600 square meter indoor polo/equestrian arena that provides all year round usage for the club members.
Most of the horses are professional polo ponies imported from Australia, Argentina and the United Kingdom, the club also owns a number of polo stallions and equestrian horses. Yet to take polo to a high level in today’s China, Shilai believes there is much work to be done.
“For polo to develop in China we need to be able to breed polo ponies,” he says. “We need to make sure there is quality training, so we will need to develop more Chinese coaches.”
Shilai, who is a one-goal player, the first rung on the professional polo ladder, has instigated a zero goal amateur open at Tang in an effort to encourage more Chinese players.
“This is important in the development process,” Shilai says. “It will enable more players to become involved in the sport, and will make it more interesting for the local audience.”
In the hitting cage we can see that China might soon have some very promising players on its hands. The three Chinese participants are bashing the balls like pros and Borwick is impressed.
“We have some tough competitors here,” he says. “They can really hit, and they only picked up the strokes an hour ago.”
The Beijing contingent is striking the ball hard, although they quite frequently clatter the horse’s legs, head and gentleman’s area as well. One wonders if a real horse would accept the clobbering with such good grace. There’s only way to find out, and so its off to the indoor training arena where five real ponies await.
The horses eye us as if we are that day’s lunch. A few seem to be licking their lips at the prospect of making the novices pay for the swagger that some have developed after their successes in the hitting cage. But once on board, the horses prove docile enough, and the riders stay saddled, mostly because the ball is red and the size of a large family’s Christmas pudding, rather than being the regulation white projectile that’s slightly smaller than a cricket ball.
“We start off with the training ball so new players can get used to swinging the stick while they are in the saddle,” he says. “Once they can hit we can start to practice on the big field.”
And it’s on the big field where Borwick truly comes into his own. Before an enthusiastic crowd of several thousand well-heeled guests the England international helps the Royal Salute China team to a victory in the 2014 China Polo Open. As Shilai also plays for the Royal Salute team, everybody goes home happy. And our polo zen master was right – we did all go from zero to polo players in less time than it takes to fly from Beijing to Hong Kong. By Daniel Jeffreys
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