With a clash of mallets and the stomping of jumbo feet that shook the earth, the game was underway.
Tense commands were shouted by pith-helmeted players tied firmly to their two-ton mounts. Very soon there was a muddle in the middle.
The beasts collided and the ball disappeared in a forest of elephantine legs, raising some dust and much laughter.
It was a classic scrum in the wacky sport of elephant polo.
It is not fast, it is not furious, yet it is as exhilarating – and as elitist - as the equine sport that inspired the jumbo version.
“It is almost like horse polo but in a very slow motion. But I can tell you it is much more difficult,” said retired Indian army Colonel Raj Kalaan, a former horse polo player who is now a member of the Chivas Regal elephant polo team.
Kalaan is among the 55 players – including three former players from New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team, three Thai transvestites who call themselves Screwless Tuskers and professional horse polo experts – who gathered in the Thai beach resort town of Hua Hin this week for the annual King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament.
The 14-team round-robin tournament ended today with Thailand’s Mobile Easy defeating Australia’s Sandalford Winery 6-4 in the final. Sandalford had created the biggest upset of the tournament by beating two-time defending champion Mercedes Benz on Saturday.
Kalaan, who trains horses on his farm outside New Delhi, admits that some people may think of elephant polo as quirky.
“But it is as competitive as any other sport. Once you are out in the middle you want to win. It not always easy,” said Kalaan, a former presidential bodyguard and battle tank commander.
No question that elephant polo is more difficult than horse polo. Try hitting an object slightly bigger than a tennis ball – while perched atop a behemoth - with a six-foot-long bamboo hammer, or getting your lumbering steed to stop in full stride and turn around when you miss the ball, as players often do.
Connecting with the ball is no guarantee of a goal. After all, a ball can only go as far as the opponent elephant’s frame blocking the goal post.
“Elephants are the smartest animals I have seen. They really understand that the ball needs to go or not go into the goal,” said Oliver Winter, captain of the Mercedes Benz team. “Sometimes I think they enjoy the game more than we do.”
Elephants, which once were the workhorses of Asia’s myriad armies and later beasts of burden in the now-banned logging industry, have lost much of their usefulness in the modern age.
Unlike horse polo, the elephant is not controlled by the one wielding the mallet but by a mahout, or handler, who sits on the animal’s neck and directs its movements.
Younger elephants tend to be quicker and more agile in making a u-turn or backing up. But they also tend to be naughtier, and are known to pick up the ball with their trunks in the middle of the game and make off – a foul.
The game is played on a pitch measuring 100 metres by 60 metres, roughly one-third the size of a horse polo field. A game has two seven-minute halves, or chukkas, with a 15-minute interval. Three elephants form a team.
The rules of the game have been drafted by the World Elephant Polo Association, which was set up in 1982 to stage annual games in Nepal.
Since then, elephant polo tournaments have also been played in Sri Lanka. Thailand joined the ranks by hosting the inaugural King’s Cup tournament in 2001 to raise funds for conservation of its 1,500 wild and 2,500 domesticated elephants.
“When we started … we had just six teams and it was more of a weekend knock-round than a tournament,” said Christopher Stafford, vice president of Anantara hotels and resorts, which organises the annual jamboree.
“Now, three years later, we have 14 teams plus a waiting list ... and the tournament is ranked as the sixth largest event on the Thai tourism calendar. Next stop the Asian games!”