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  • Abhijato Sensarma

Fit for Pleasure: A look at casual sports on campus

By Abhijato Sensarma

A common sight when you first come to Ashoka is a couple — perhaps a potential one — playing on the basketball court near the frisbee field. This can be at all times of day, but especially towards the night, when love is in the air and the basketball team is not training.

Ashoka’s sports facilities are spread throughout the campus. Table tennis, pool, billiards as well as foosball tables are located around the residence halls. The sports block has dedicated equipment for badminton and squash, even facilities for gymming, yoga and dance. Most equipment here is much better maintained than the residence halls, procured only by submitting your ID card for the duration of your usage. The sports block has a few chess sets too. You can play that game anywhere — a few couples might even break out a board if they share a more niche interest.

Playing sports outdoors becomes a trickier business. There is a sunken field where people play frisbee and train for the cricket team, alongside using a volleyball and a basketball court. The floodlights for these places are vigilantly switched off as soon as night comes around. If you call up maintenance and plead with them enough, they might keep it switched on till 11 pm — but the expiry date for sporting pleasure in the after-hours is limited.

But the tennis court, towards the dhaba, appears to be a more relaxed spot. The lights there can be manually accessed at any time of night, and are much less prone to be switched off by maintenance personnel on patrol either. With the space available round-the-clock, it should technically be easier to use during convenient timings, such as right after classes in the day or dinner in the evening.

Anoushka Gehani (ASP24) tells a different story. It was around 6 pm when she walked up to the tennis court with a friend once. A person from the college tennis team was practising. She asked them how long they would take. “He didn’t look up at me at all and then I asked again, because I didn’t know if he had heard or not”. When she pressed him for an answer, he avoided eye contact and said: “I don’t know, like two hours.”

The experience left a sour taste, and she said she avoided interactions with the team, even as she figured out a time and routine to play with her friends. “I’m not embarrassed to be bad at a sport in front of people that are not taking it too seriously”, she says. “I think finding someone who’s on the same wavelength” – being just the right amount of competitive while also not taking themselves too seriously – “and then playing regularly with them helps a lot. I’m lucky to have another friend of mine who’s gotten into the sport in the exact same way that I have recently. So that’s great.”

Finding friends to play with for leisure is as important as ensuring they stick around, though. “I feel like there are so many other things to do on campus.” It makes a lot of people just drop in to play once and then go back to their lives, trying out other things instead of committing to a sport. This, of course, is the point of playing sports for leisure for many — the lack of commitment. But for people who love the sport but are not part of a formal team, friends like Anoushka’s help build up a routine where you can destress from academics and Ashokan life in a way familiar to you.

She talks of how any physical activity can help with mental health, especially on a “campus that is already really tiny”. But just having one tennis court does not help. With Agneepath scheduled to happen imminently when this semester began, longer coaching hours occupied the courts. This did not stop her from finding workarounds. “We go really late in the night, like 11.30. That’s the only time the tennis court is empty, and I’m sure it’s the same for most sports.”

She played tennis for five years when in school, on and off, even playing competitively within the state. She left training because of her board exams. “In retrospect,” she says, “board exams are such an embarrassing concept to give up a sport for”. Ashoka, in that sense, has been a breath of fresh air towards her interest.

At the same time, she talks of “accessibility” and the lack thereof that comes with both access to the court and the team. Now that her time on campus is coming towards an end, she says she wishes she wasn’t “intimidated by the whole tennis team and [she] engaged with them more”. While she acknowledges she is shy as a person, approaching a space where someone was cold to her made her unsure of her place within the tennis circle at Ashoka, until the Racket Sports League rolled around this semester. She was brought onto a team as a last-minute substitute for someone who had to pull out. People organising the tournament were “really nice and supportive”. More importantly, she thought the tournament was a great way to “encourage people who are new to sport”.

Her one hope for the future of leisure sports on campus? She wishes for other people to not be intimidated by the prospect of using the space as one they can think of their own to play on and with others like them. “It’s too late for me now,” she says, already looking ahead at graduate programs after this semester ends.

With tournaments like the Racket Sports League, the franchise-style play almost demands decentralisation of what might have unconsciously seeped into the tennis culture on campus. Is it the same for other sports as well? Abhivir Beri (UG24) has a perspective from the other side of the equation. “Pool is actually a pretty common thing here.” He was part of its competitive team till last year and even went on to play in a tournament outside campus. However, the then leadership was graduating and the onus fell on him to prop up the team by entering a leadership position and keeping the team alive. With his academics being a priority, he decided to leave the offer on the table. While progress has been made on restarting a team by others on campus, Abhivir has now settled into casual play with his friends, including his roommate, who has actively made the effort to get into the sport himself.

Abhivir lives on the first floor of RH1. It is tempting and easy to access the pool table that is just “one floor below”, available at any time of day for him and his friends to play on. Has he faced any issues with access to the table? “The pool table is almost eternally occupied by people”, he says, “unless it’s the middle of classes on like a Tuesday or Wednesday.” There are always people playing in the evenings, but their approach to sharing this space is different. “It’s quite fun because you end up playing with people you don’t know as well.”

When he goes down with his friends to check the table’s availability, people inform them how many frames are left before they vacate the table for the people next in line. Sometimes, they even invite him and his friends to join in if the numbers match up. “It’s a pretty good community,” he says with a smile. “Pool is not as much of a physical game. It’s a game for anyone if you know the technique to play.”

“I’m a very competitive person,” he also acknowledges, “but I very rarely take it fully seriously… The only time I take it so is if I’m playing a full frame just by myself.” He can use these instances to improve his skills and powers, but at other times, in the company of his friends, he tries out “spins and new angles that [he hasn’t] thought of”. When he first came to Ashoka, however, he did not play the sport at all. It was only a couple of months into his second year that he taught his friends the “tricks of the trade”, to the point where they are now “addicted” to pool.

“Pool is a pretty good game, dude. I like it quite a bit,” he says at the end of his introspective about his relationship with the sport. Ashoka has given him a way to grow his love for it. But there remains the problem of resources: “You have the basics — the ball and the stick. But the cue is not properly maintained. The chalk is uneven,” requiring frequent replacements. He has brought over a cue from home because he has access to one, but others are stuck with an ill-maintained one. The surface of the top needs to be evened out with chalk, but every time the stock is replenished in the RH1 reception, it quickly becomes unusable or unavailable. “It disappears in two to three days, or breaks apart.”

Though pool remains an accessible game at Ashoka, Abhivir talks about how the urge to procure “resources [starts] racking up”. Players might buy gloves or their own cues — “they are not the cheapest for college students” — which hinders people’s ability to make full use of the other available equipment that is more long-lasting and impersonal on campus.

When one is on a professional team, on the other hand, equipment should not be as much of a problem. But this does not mean access to space is a given either. Manika Jindal (UG24) has been on the women’s badminton team for as long as she has been on campus. She traces out the evolution of their access to the courts in the face of a massive boom, caused by casual players dropping into the space much more frequently.

I myself have dropped in for the occasional badminton session with my friends, often while on late-night walks. The ease of access to the courts if it’s nearing midnight (for the insomniacs, at least) and the good equipment seem like blessings. But this trend has come at a cost. For a long time, there were three courts one could use inside the Multi-Purpose Hall (MPH), and the team trained on all of them concurrently for a couple of hours in the evening.

But the sports department has reduced the team’s unilateral bookings to just two courts. There are around twenty people expected to turn up to training — simple maths dictates that any individual player can then only train for a few minutes. “You barely end up practising,” Manika says. “We need all three courts, at least for an hour”. As a compromise, two more temporary courts have been made on the side to accommodate casual players, but this has not helped them out.

The department reasons that these are peak hours when everyone wants to play. But as a result of this decision, with even faculty members and their spouses often dropping in for a quick session, Manika has felt a proportional impact on the team’s performances. She talks of how other colleges allow their teams more training time in similarly sized training spaces, but the lack of the same at Ashoka “really affects [their] performance in tournaments and leads to a lot of frustration.”

A lot of people start playing badminton for leisure, then sign up for the Ashoka Badminton League as a stepping stone to play against the team players, like Anoushka did within the tennis circle. This encourages them to come to practice. Many even make it to the B team. But after a while, once the training is regimented into these unproductive two-hour slots, they paradoxically get a lot less practice — around fifteen to twenty minutes on a good day — than when they were playing casually.

There have been talks between the team and the department, but the latter has refused to budge by citing the attendance of the players, which has steadily declined since the new court policy took place. Here lies a vicious cycle: if players do not get enough space to practise, what incentive do they have to drop in in the first place? “Honestly, you don’t really have a solution”, Manika says about the situation right now.

Does she counteract this lack of practice by engaging in casual play? After all, when she first came to campus immediately after the pandemic, she started by playing with friends. The COVID facilities in the MPH meant she was restricted to playing outdoors on the basketball courts, which presented its own unique challenges, like the strong wind and the summer sun. But now, she says that playing badminton for leisure does not align with her goals in the sport. On top of turning up to practise for two hours, even when she does drop in to play with her friends, the level of commitment and practice is just not the same. She talks of how leisure play inherently requires “a different mindset”.

The intensity and movement required while playing in these sessions, mostly during the evenings, are fun to be involved in but do not count as “practice” for her. After all, it is unfair to expect to bridge the gap between wanting to play with friends, who might not move around on the court as much or make you do so, to the rigours of formal practice with a dedicated coach in sight. But because of this lack of adequate space or time to train formally, Manika’s engagement with the leisurely spaces of the game has had a massive downturn as well.

A similar conundrum has affected those who love playing football too. A case in point is Jeevant Rajeev (UG24): a member of the almost mythical WhatsApp group called ‘Evening Ballers’. It consists of people who want to play football casually and is used to fix dates and times that work for enough people to turn up to the football field and just play a game of football, no strings attached.

Unlike professional games, it’s as if “everybody is on the same team”. Jeevant points out the touch of “community” that pervades their interactions. “Everybody says hi to each other. The juniors and seniors, everybody talks. If somebody new comes to play, everybody asks for their name — nobody’s ever rude to you right after or in the moment of the game,” even if you make a mistake.

He contrasts this to the college team, where “it’s like you have a goal to get to and you’re trying to get better”. He has prior experience from the school team he trained with, where occupying space with better players was often the path to learning the hard way while still being made to feel welcome during training. He joined his school team and realised early on that he would spend “at least a year sitting on the bench to get to their level, which [he] eventually did”. At no time in the process did he feel like he was “separate” from them.

However, with the men’s football team in Ashoka, the issue of team size creeps up. The “B-team”, consisting of people who turn up to practise but haven’t made the first-choice squad yet, often stand in opposition to the other players. They get to play with them and are trained by a coach, but this space has the likelihood of becoming overwhelming for many who might not be lent a helping hand in the environment. “You can’t just drop in” to the team training either, meaning a lot of people prefer a more flexible set-up like the Evening Ballers.

The “language barrier” between coaches and international students has also played an important role in some of the best players on campus preferring to have a good time in leisure sports instead of trying out formal training. “Nobody will try to act like they command the room,” Jeevant says. “There are players who I can easily see being on the college team, who we out of respect won’t ask to go into the goal, because we know that they’re good and older than us”. But the space of this team is such that even the best who drop in to play are willing to do what is needed to make it feel like no one’s above the rotational system unavoidable in casual football matches.

“Ego clashes” are inevitable, but more people are willing to step in to turn down the heat during these matches. “Ten other people around will be like, ‘Guys, come on’”: this attitude speaks to an environment that values the inclusivity it has fostered, without intimidating those who make mistakes. For people who take the game more seriously than others, as in the other instances of the people I interviewed for different sports, it thus becomes a balancing act between a desire to improve and the need to treat the intensity of leisure sports as inherently different to that of competitive ones.

The “Evening Ballers” WhatsApp group now has upwards of seventy people on the group, with around twenty turning up to play on the group’s busiest days. This means some of the more casual touch goes out in a packed field, while also necessitating bigger teams. But unlike the more closed-off spaces, a casual team’s accessibility might also be its biggest strength.

As the Ashoka Premier League rolls around, Jeevant predicts that the evening games — like every year — will witness a surge in the number of people who come around to play in them. “I personally like to go and play a little more,” Jeevant says. The pipeline from leisure sports to these student-led tournaments based on franchise models has faced its fair share of critique, as The Edict has previously highlighted. But in a lot of instances, it has also acted as a quick-stop solution to bridging the divide between casual sports and competitive matches.

At the same time, questions remain in terms of whether more could be done to grant space to players on either side of the divide between leisure and professionalism. The lack of resources, be it chalk for one’s cue tip or just physical space to practise in, restricts the extent to which Ashokans can take time out to engage with these sports.

The point of leisure sports is not always to graduate to “higher honours” — a lot of people do it for fun, because it is a good middle space between the intense commitment of fixed training hours and the mindless fun of playing with friends. Communities are built through friendships, social media, and WhatsApp groups. But without a more formal structure to their organisation, a lot of these spaces run the risk of being vacated and needing juniors to build them up from the ground up once again.

As Abhivir pointed out early on in his interview, the onus of keeping a tradition alive should not be on any one individual. All the peers I interviewed confessed to a decrease in their time playing the sport because they are nearing the end of their time at Ashoka, while their academic demands are also increasing. This is only natural. My mind kept going back to an almost innocuous example: there used to be an unexpectedly active foosball culture on campus, facilitated by a WhatsApp group my friends and I were inducted into by a senior who randomly joined us for a game one night. People would simply text on the group: “foos?” and there would always be someone around to drop in for a game within a few minutes. But now, the senior has graduated and the group is a mostly desolate space.

As of the time of writing this article, there is no women’s team for cricket, among other sports. This means that for a lot of people, the only option to engage with their preferred sport is in a leisurely setting. The Sports Enthusiast Club has attempted to start a vertical addressing the same, while more casual events like the Batch Championship give people an outlet to form groups that can continue beyond just these isolated tournaments. But the push and pull of academic commitments, accessibility of spaces, as well as the attitudes of those who are more involved in the formal teams will go a long way in dictating what the future of leisure sports at Ashoka looks like.

All we can know for sure is that at the very least, there will always be another potential romantic pair hanging out on the basketball court, having the time of their lives. In this one respect, we can all try to be a bit more like Ashokan couples — to just go out there and have fun playing sports, the time of day irrelevant to the equation as long as you have friends to make memories with.

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