Precision under pressure: How Rupa Rani Tirkey guided India's Lawn Bowls team to gold

Rupa Rani Tirkey competes during Women's Fours (Lawn Bowls) - Gold Medal Match between South Africa and India in the 2022 Commonwealth Games Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

In many ways, Rupa Rani Tirkey's best shot of the Lawn Bowls Women's Four final between India and South Africa on Tuesday was one that eventually made no difference to the score.

With India slightly ahead in the sixth of 15 Ends, she went in for her last shot with the jack nestled between two blue balls from the Indian team, very close to the edge of the ditch. With a South African riposte from Johanna Snyman yet to come, she could have played it safe and just looked to roll her blue ball somewhere close to the Indian clutch and get her team in a position of further comfort.

Instead, the 34-year-old Indian skip - the one who throws last - set one ball rolling through the outside lane, curving late, and continuing to hurdle towards the jack. It nudged an Indian ball and narrowly missed out on contact with the jack. The momentum took it right to the edge of the ditch, and it appeared to gather its thoughts momentarily before gently rolling over.

It yielded nothing but was so audacious in thinking it had team manager Anju Luthra grinning in appreciation and even her opponents giving her approving glances.

As skip, Rupa Rani's job with the Indian team these past few days has been tougher than most in the four-team competition. She has to guide her teammates -- Lovely Choubey, Pinki and Nayanmoni Saikia - through their two shots each before her own turn comes. By then, the collection of balls around the jack, also called the head, is a logjam of red and blue, with little wriggle room for her to work with.

Imagine being handed a painting that is just three-quarters of the way complete, and then being blindfolded before you are handed your brush and colours. The strokes you add then will determine what your painting eventually looks like. The pressure on the skip before her turn is similar; there is pressure of both delivery, and actual execution, which requires ice-cold nerves and red-hot precision.

Think of her as MS Dhoni, that other calm sportsperson from Jharkhand known for an ability to finish, but with a twist: he doesn't get a sight of the ball all the way through. Because the head is invariably along undulations on the far sides of the lawn, the skip is essentially going by what she sees and trying to avoid what she cannot. If you don't get it right, you run the risk of disturbing your team's previous positions, or worse, helping the opponents get their balls into better places.

In such trying circumstances, Rupa Rani has consistently delivered for India over the final two days of the competition. Her stunning final shot that wrapped up the semi-final win against New Zealand came with India trailing by one shot and in need of a sure-fire winner.

On Tuesday, she took India into an 8-2 advantage at one stage, before the South Africans launched a blistering comeback. Even in that, Rupa Rani finished off the eighth End by first knocking away two South African balls from near the jack, and then striking the jack away from a clutch of red South African balls to reduce their lead for the end.

Then with India under pressure -- seeing a six-point lead evaporate to trail 10-8 -- she finished the 12th End with one shot striking the jack from the forehand side and then snaking the next through the backhand side to finish within inches of it and draw India level. In a game of close margins, it was a tiny bit of momentum that went a long way towards wresting the gold from what seemed like South Africa's inevitability at that stage.

In a team sport, Rupa Rani stood head and shoulders over both her teammates and her opponents in a memorable week for India at the Commonwealth Games. She was a calm yet decisive conductor when instructing her compatriots, and she was unfailingly brilliant when it came to clutch moments for her team.

India found unlikely heroes in a sport most of the country wouldn't even have cared much about before Tuesday. And in Rupa Rani Tirkey, its most unlikely star.