Indian Ace Polo Players In Talking
Riding on top, two mavericks keep their games on point. LA POLO gets in conversation with Arjuna Awardee, Simran Singh Shergill and Shamsheer Ali
They could very well be professional archenemies on the field, but off the field, Syed Shamsheer Ali and Simran Singh Shergill are remarkably comparable as they both would make for perfect Indian polo poster boys.
Though the two have a similar passion for the sport, they both have a very different approach toward life – while one comes across as a simpleton the other one balances the mood with his flamboyance. At LA POLO, when we spent an entire day with the two highly proficient players to discover their stories, we couldn’t help but wonder how the two peas in a pod were just the right personalities to grace the cover of our first edition.
Syed Shamsheer Ali, +5 (current) handicap player
He has played polo for more than 25 years now, and if his memory serves him correctly he played his first tournament at the age of 11. At a very young age, Syed Shamsheer Ali along with his brothers Bashir and Hamza were trained by Nawab Syed Shujat Ali to become polo champs and, to date, the discipline and dedication instilled by his abba (father) are his biggest strength.
Mr. Ali recalls his early days and says, “We had a very strict upbringing, I still hit the bed by 9 pm to wake up early the next day. I fell from the horseback at the age of 10, when my father told me not to stop and keep playing. I had a pony named Biscuit and while growing up we never allowed any late nights. Our childhood was spent in stables, practicing the game and I have never touched alcohol or cigarettes in my life because we followed a strict diet to stay fit. Polo is a demanding game and requires a lot of discipline, which was taught to us by our father. I started playing when I was 11. In the year 2000, I played at the Jaipur zonal playoff for India against Singapore, Pakistan, and New Zealand and we won the three games. We won against Pakistan and it was a crucial game for us because the winners qualified for the main event at the World Cup. It was a turning point in my life as I became a 4 goal player at that time, and around 80,000 people watched that game and cheered us till the end. I was 12 when I played in my first international tournament in Columbia with my brother. For the 2003 World Cup, we were taken to Argentina by the Indian Polo Association for the match and the exposure changed a lot in me as a player. I still remember my first salary as a polo player was from Sehgal Studs, and it was INR 30,000 for the first week and I was just 17 at that time. That was also the year I got married to my wife Nazia.”
“On the field, you have to fight it out, but off the field, you have to be a gentleman,” says the Hyderabadi top-notch as he mentions that he would like to pass on the lesson of sportsmanship to the next generation of players who aspire to take this professionally. “Polo is a very competitive sport and could be very dangerous. My advice to youngsters is that they shouldn’t be attached to the sport so much that it affects their well-being – winning and losing is a part of this game and it shouldn’t get to their heads.”
The biggest challenge for a polo professional in India is to source the right kind of horses as 70 to 80 percent of the game depends on the horses. Mr. Ali says, “Polo in India has changed over the years and people have bought horses from abroad. It started with Major Adiraj Singh getting horses for McDowell’s and Jindals and Sahara followed suit. Whereas, we still buy Indian horses and groom them to play against these horses. On average, it takes at least two to three years to train a horse depending on the temperament of the horse. There aren’t many horse trainers in India, and some of the best horses are trained by the 61st cavalry of the Indian Army. I have around 10 home-bred horses. I had a mare named Triveni that stayed with me for the longest time and it was an excellent Indian breed. We were in Argentina for six years and returned sometime back.”
A typical polo season in India is for six months, and during summers the horses are fed and trained well for the next season. Mr. Ali adds, “We need more publicity for polo, as people don’t know about the game. It is not covered on TV and people in South India are hardly aware of it. We need more sponsors coming in to support polo, so people can maintain the stables without selling their horses. The discussions of a Champions Polo League are on right now and all the players have come forward to support Mr Chirag Pariekh as he is trying to get the arena polo format on TV. The new format could be the T-20 version of polo, with smaller ground, and bigger balls and people can watch it closely. Aspirants and professionals playing right now need money to survive, and even though there are a handful of teams like Jindal, Sahara, Sona, etc doing very well we need more attention.” In his free time, Mr. Ali plays tennis with his daughter and travels with this family. He also claims to be a foodie and loves to eat sushi, fish, biryani, and haleem.
Simran Singh Shergill, +6 (current) handicap player
His love for horses as a kid brought him closer to the world of polo, and today the 6 feet 2 inches Simran Shergill Singh is one of the finest players in the country with 6 handicaps. He has also received the prestigious Arjuna Award in 2019 from India’s President, Mr. Ram Nath Kovind. The passion for polo started as a hobby and turned into a profession for this happy-go-lucky man, and he has no qualms about how his life shaped up. He says, “My father was in the army and he was posted in the President’s Bodyguard regiment, which is a horse regiment. As a kid, I was very fond of horses and I started going there to ride, then started with show jumping and later got interested in playing polo. Then I stopped for a bit and finished my school. I went to Hansraj college in Delhi and finished my MBA at IMT. As soon as I finished school, I met mister Jindal at a cinema hall and asked him if I could come and ride in the summer. Once the polo season started, there was a team short of a player and I played a game that time. My game was noticed by someone and then I was asked to play somewhere else and so it started for me. A year later, in 2003 we were sent to Argentina for training in polo and that was very beneficial for me there I played in my first international tournament. I got 2 goals in a year, which was considered very good and I started getting job offers.”
Mr. Shergill considers buying his first set of horses as a memorable incident in his life, and he says that in the past years of playing polo he has developed an unconditional love for horses. “In polo, every player has to develop a rapport with the pony and one of my favorites is a mare called Pines from New Zealand. It belongs to Mr. Jindal and it's one of the finest horses in India right now. Also, two horses that have played with me for a very long time were named Jimmy and Carrot, and I was extremely fond of them. Around 70 to 75 percent of game of polo revolves around horses, so the team with better horses has a higher chance of winning. Horses like athletes need to be trained properly, fed properly, and exercised properly. They get hurt too, so they have to be treated well.”
“When I play polo I don’t feel like I’m going to work, it’s not a 9 to 5 job but more like a lifestyle for us,” mentions Mr. Shergill, adding, “My first salary was 12,000 and after that, I started saving money to play it seriously. I feel I am still young, and I could get better at playing so that’s what I would like to do. I am not a stressful person by nature and I try to lead my life as simply as possible. My biggest fears are injuries and bankruptcy. I am not a very ambitious person by nature and I am very content at my work, although I am very competitive and I would like to get better at my game.” The skilled rider highlights some of the most challenging aspects of the game and says, “It is an expensive game, it’s not accessible to everyone. It is a very dangerous sport; the main concern is not to get injuries. Most of us have got injuries while playing -- broken bones, concussions, and other issues are quite common with players. Even in summer, when horses are not playing we have to take care of them and our lives revolve around horses. The only misconception people have about polo is the glamour aspect of the game, which is good for publicity but there are a lot of things that need to reach out to people. In cities like Jaipur, the game is covered in sports pages, but in Delhi and other cities it is getting more coverage on the party page, so the seriousness of the game shouldn’t be mixed with the social aspect of it.” Mr. Shergill is married to a lovely lady named Francesca and has a son named Veer, who loves to spend time with him at the polo farms. He claims to be a foodie and tells us that he does wonders with eggs, but to keep a check on his weight he has to run around a lot.
A self-made and a meant to be made. Two different backgrounds playing on the same ground. A reigning member of the team Jindal Panthers - Simran Singh Shergill and a player backed up by the game of polo - Shamsheer Syed Ali. Speaking less and rich of the journey that goes beyond play and sways off the field. Of hidden quests and dramas that lie behind their cloaked masks. They put it on in public.
The spotlight follows and then goes into the dark. Thrilled hearts cheer and in time they disappear. The mallets swing on horses with wings. The trophy commemorates and victory celebrates. And hidden are the gaps and phases of the all-attractive ubiquitous sport. Those inner workings remain untold. The nights spent in stables remain as fables. Unheard. A conjugation of uncommon species.
“Horses are my teachers of both theory and practical classes of psychology,” says Simran, wearing a modest mask this time. “Our lives are on the line each time we ride on fine horses in the rectangular field.”
Artistry and horse riding have little in common unless you are Shamseer Syed Ali. His mornings start with the tapping of balls on the mallet while jogging on his farm in Hyderabad. Growing up among brothers carrying the same profession, he is the eldest of all three. His grandmother kept his name “Chamma” and some people call him “Shama” too. He says the horses want your devotion to them and “I give all my time to them, playing or practicing.”
The time for sitting on the saddle and playing polo arrived very early in his life. He was 11 when he first played his polo match for India against New Zealand, South Africa, Singapore, and Pakistan. Qualifying all of them he ascended India to the finals of the world cup in 2000. At 12 when he played the game on international grounds in Columbia.
Emphasizing the hardships of his journey, he has seen things shattering in daylight. “Owning and breeding horses for 6 years which are born for polo in Argentina and losing everything a gunpoint left us with no choice but to return to India with no establishment.” He expresses melancholy.
Now he has grown responsible and humble, maybe marrying at 17 has inculcated one of the things in him “ On the field, you fight it out. Off the field, you are a gentleman.”
Simran Singh Shergill
When life gives Simran Singh Shergill fascination turned into reality, he becomes unstoppable until he squeezes everything out of it. The commentator mentions his name repeatedly as he gallops with his horse after the ball to send it into the goal post and he misses the shot for a few moments, the tapping sound of horseshoes stops, and the crowd shifts its expression to quietness. And Simran screeches his own name gazing at the skies. He has been harsher on himself than the cacophonous times in the journey of his life. People might expect the highest handicap (+6) polo player in the whole of Asia to be drifting off success money and laurels. But he is riding off for a long game, watching life beyond the fields.
“I would always want to be an untamed child”, Simran says as he sits in a polo field that appears alone and silent as the visitors make their way to the royal after-party sitting against the red sun which is about to disappear too. He looks ban and slightly dark. “I have hated losing, on the fields, and in life”. Probably it's why he has won most of his matches playing for Jindal Panthers in his 23 ( and counting) years of career. As the dusk starts to cover him inch by inch, he is filled with a variety of expressions on remembering tales of his childhood days, “For four years, I was left with a bike and few mallets and no horses. So I used them on my bike and rode all the way to Jindal Forms in Noida after my schooling hours.” Now he rides on one of the finest horses and his favorite-from New Zealand pines. Playing a royal dream which has always demanded thoroughbred horses and huge expenses to feed and buy accessories for the game, it's been a memorable journey that uncovers the story of a student of class 11th with limited resources covering a desolated way that made him one the most celebrated players in the history of Indian polo.
Born into a family dedicated to the Indian Army, gained access to ride horses and embrace them as his father was posted to a regiment called the president's bodyguard. Little he started learning and loving the ponies, and he was restricted to ride them anymore because his father was posted outside Delhi. Ever since he was a slightly chubby new rides horse, he has been alluded to swing mallets and control horses in every possible manner. But this fascination of his had to wait. At the early age of 13, he started with show jumping and eventually secured 2nd place in the nationals. But that never appealed to him. “Luck can be mustered with passion and dedication ”. He says imploringly almost childlike, “It has happened to me. And it got me far.” There's A charming side to disclose, if you`re for it, in his confident demeanor. He faced a sudden encounter with Naveen Jindal in his school days cinema hall. He had always known of his polo farm, and the very next moment, he didn’t stop himself from enquiring if he can come and ride in his summer vacations. The nostalgia for whipping and riding had just taken a step closer to the far end. And his game started getting bigger and more noticeable with every passing month.
A year later, he was sent to Argentina for training in polo. A professional polo player took command of his horse and his team.
Of their toughest time and recovery
Shamsheer: We never knew it was coming. To shatter everything. One good day turned bad when my brother and I were robbed of everything at a gunpoint in Argentina. And the universe conspired against us. We left for India without any horses or resources. But you see, these thighs have got an endless rigidity riding horses, so kneeling was hard for us. All three brothers unitedly brought horses to make a fresh and tough start.
Simran: Injuries are what really ties you down. There was a big international match in Delhi and I was selected to play for the Indian team. But I was injured a week before that. Someone hit me with the mallet and I tried to play a match but the pain became irresistible after halftime. And the recovery time kept me off the field for a long.
Rivals of each other or someone else
Shamsheer: Simran and I both were at the same handicap. We like to compete but he is far better mounted than me with the horsepower he has. Playing for the Jindals opens the gate of a stable that shelters the best horses in the country.
Simran: In the past few years, I have seen rivalry and competence both. There is Chamma (Shamsheer) who possesses a unique and useful talent for tapping the ball on a mallet and riding across the polo field keeping it in the air. When I was at the -2 handicap, he was already at the +1 handicap (the number line in polo goes from -2 to +10). When I reached +2, Chamma was at number 5. There is competence but speaking of rivalry, it is with my best ally Abhimanyu Pathak. Playing together and against others at times has inculcated a deep insight into each other’s skills and strengths.
Fear more than the opponents on the field
Shamsheer: In this most aggressive and contact sport I see two things coming when the sport gets personal sometimes. With horses- At parallel speeds, you can push or hit each other to the sides. With Body - You can go and hit another player with your shoulders. Both tricks don't make you liable for a foul.
Simran: It’s only when everyone leaves the field safely, I am relieved.
The age when the first salary came into the pocket
Shamsheer: I was 17 when a patron paid me 30,000 after playing for a week for them.
Simran: The winters or season of polo gave me an opportunity to play in some tournaments and they used to pay me 12000 with the completion of every series, helping me to buy horses gradually.
Who should become a polo player
Shamsheer: People who love horses. I wouldn’t say it’s expensive, it’s quite affordable if you visit a polo club. You just have to pay a nominal fee to ride along with a mallet and ball and make a head start for polo.
Simran: There is no place in sports or otherwise for mediocrity. Anyone who wants to make sports a profession must strive for excellence. It’s important to chase your passion and not the things that come along with it. A polo player is playing the most royal game and he must be fixed on his game.
A polo player sees his life without polo.
Shamsheer: The imagination is all black at this stage. But I would have invested in real estate or started a company. Would have done something big only.
Simran: Every tradition has its own beginning and my family followed one - joining the Indian Army. I always think it’s a great way of earning a living. I could have joined it too. A disciplinary fascination is there in me.
As a messenger of polo
Shamsheer: They say, the dog is the best friend of a man but I would say that even horses can be the same. You run vigorously on them, turn in any direction, and stop at any instant. They listen to us. One should come and witness the blend of understanding between a man and an animal.
Simran: This is a game you play more off the field. Playing for self-grooming. I meet my groom more than my parents. Knowing him for more than 15 years. And that keeps me grounded. If his daughter is getting married and my horse falls sick, I spend the whole night in the stable. We work in the dark to perform in light.