Women players are allowed to use two hands to hold the mallet, and teams with a majority of women are awarded a one-goal advantage. Additional handicapping seeks to allow very inexperienced teams a chance to at least hold their own against superior talent. At last year's world championships the U.S. entry, the Infidels, sponsored by InnerAsia Expeditions of San Francisco, consisted of a "veteran" elephant-polo player (she had played in three previous tournaments), a former matador now living in California, a former high school tennis star, a hydroplane racer and an emergency-room doctor from Florida—plus one Nepali player chosen in a pretournament draft. After a mere 20 minutes of practice, the Infidels learned that their first match would be against one of the round-robin tournament's strongest teams, the Maharajahs, sponsored by the international Grindlays Bank. The sport's coinventor, Manclark, was a Maharajah, as was the commander of the 61st Indian Horse Cavalry, Colonel Rupi Brar.
The Infidels countered by recruiting a colonel of their own, Raj Kalaan of the Indian army, captain of last year's champion Oberoi Hotels team, as their coach. Kalaan then assigned elephants to players and positions: The largest animal was put in goal, and the fastest was put under Ramji Tharu, one of several Nepalis doled out to teams in a blind draw.
The Infidels began the match in front by one goal, courtesy of the handicapping system. They added a real goal on a shot by Tharu between the legs of the Grindlays Bank's goalie elephant and led 2-1 at halftime. When Grindlays tied the score midway through the second chukker, the Infidels' Scott Siegler, president of Columbia Pictures Television, assuming that the element of confusion could only work to his advantage, began calling out to Manclark, "Jim, pass it here!"
"That technique could not possibly have succeeded," said Manclark after the game. "No one ever calls me Jim." Final score: Grindlays 4, Infidels 2.
Other first-day results found J&B defeating the Pan Am Jumbos 5-3 and Oberoi Hotels beating the Fine Young Hannibals of London 12-3. In an upset the Tiger Tops Tuskers, unable to overcome their three-goal handicap, lost 4-2 to the Tops Tigresses, who were, as the nickname implies, all women—save for their Nepali teammate, Buddhi Kamal.
On the second day the favored Tuskers, still reeling from their defeat, squeezed out a 3-3 tie with Pan Am, and Grindlays trounced the Hannibals 12-1. The surprising Infidels, relying on defense and possession play, fought Oberoi to a 3-3 tie. The Tigresses beat J&B 3-1, which set them up for an unexpected run at the championship. The next day, in fact, a 3-3 tie with Pan Am put the women's team in the finals. In the game to determine the Tigresses' opponent, Grindlays beat Oberoi 7-2.
The World Championships of Elephant Polo attracts villagers from many miles around the Meghauli airstrip, some of whom walk days to attend. On the day of the Tigresses-Grindlays title match, thousands of Nepalis in festival finery ringed the field along with vendors, musicians, camera crews, assorted local celebrities and horse-polo players from throughout the world. When the teams donned colorful turbans and pith helmets, grabbed their giant mallets and rode their elephants onto the field, the crowd went wild, thrilled by what must surely be one of the most exotic spectacles in sport.
Elephant-polo spectators scream with every shot, but they scream loudest when the ball is hit toward the sidelines, because it is invariably pursued by charging elephants who often have difficulty stopping. Nonetheless, on this day people completely surrounded the large field, standing five and six deep.
Before the game even began, the proud Maharajahs trailed the women 2-0. Because elephant polo is not a high-scoring game, the two-goal advantage ensured that the outcome would be in question for quite a while. The Tigresses attempted to rely on defense and control. Grindlays designated one man, Govind Sandhu of India, as its scorer; his teammates continually tried to feed him the ball in front of the Tigress goal. In the end their methodical strategy, their greater experience and their inability to imagine living with defeat by a predominantly female side gave the Maharajahs a 5-4 victory.
At the awards ceremony, after he had lavishly praised all eight teams, Edwards, WEPA's vice-chairman, reflected on elephant polo's chances for recognition as an Olympic sport. "Well, of course, our efforts are just beginning," he said. "To achieve Olympic status, it must be played in several countries. They do play in India, and they could play in Thailand, Burma, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and a couple of others. If we can get those countries to experience the sport, I'd say elephant polo has a bright future indeed."