Spiritual guidance for Khan

New Zealand has a Maori force in the women's singles bowls.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IF THEY call these the family games, Millie Khan is the mother of the Commonwealth. Between the eldest of her own children, a son aged 43, and the youngest of her great grandchildren, a mere 10 months, lies a family tree worthy of the Old Testament. Genesis and Numbers, perhaps.

In total, the 60-year-old representative of New Zealand in the women's singles of the bowls tournament, has seven children, 18 grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Ask her how many of each sex and she casts her mind into space then gives up. Six daughters, one son, roughly nine of each for the grandchildren, three boys and a girl as great grandchildren. All live within an hour's drive of her home in Matamata, a farming community in Waikato on New Zealand's north island.

Khan's own stock is hardly straightforward. Her mother is Maori, her father left Dalmatia on the Adriatic coast to farm in New Zealand, her husband is from Pakistan. Her temperament, like her face, owes more to her Maori ancestry and her sporting creed is impeccably simple. "As long as I play my best, I'm happy, win or lose," she says with a briskness which brooks no argument.

She was happy enough yesterday, a 25-8 victory over Fiji's Radhika Prasad on the opening morning of singles competition confirming what her team manager, Adrienne Lambert, had spied in practice. "Right from the word go, we thought `goodness me'. She startled us with her command of line and length."

There are good reasons for the rest to fear the challenge of the oldest member of the New Zealand team, not all of them to do with her natural talent or her love of a good scrap. For one thing she is the keeper of the Maori doll Panya, the Kiwi team mascot; for another her powers of concentration are legendary - "before a match, you can be talking to her and she's not hearing a word you say," said Lambert - and for a third, thoughts of retirement are starting to tiptoe through the back of her mind. She has been bowling now for 22 years and has represented her country for the past 12. Gold would be a fitting addition to her medal collection. But other, more personal, more powerful, forces will be working on Millie's behalf.

At the Commonwealth Games in Auckland in 1990, Khan reached the final of the women's singles against a woman from Papua New Guinea. She lost, but it was not the defeat which she remembers. That morning, her youngest grandson died at the age of just 11 weeks. The team heard about it before the final and had to shield the news from Millie. "I couldn't work out why they were fussing around me so," she said. "I was getting really annoyed with them." She even had a police escort to collect her bowls. Only later did she discover the truth. Her flowers from the medal presentation were buried with the little boy, but the full tribute was played out on the bowling greens of New Zealand. In the next 13 months, Khan won five national titles, each one of them an unspoken dedication to her grandson.

Time has lent an emotional distance to that day now, but the death of her sister, Josie, in the summer of 1997 is a memory still too raw to probe. Millie was staying with her when she died of a heart attack. "We were so close because we'd been through a lot together and she was so proud and supportive. She had all the cuttings about me." Josie now has her sister's silver medal in safe keeping, true to the Maori tradition of burial and remembrance. "They help her, those two, her sister and her grandson," says Lambert. "She knows their spirit is there."

Outside the window of the competitors' canteen, the bowlers are preparing for the afternoon sessions of the singles. The heat is oppressive and Khan could retreat to her air-conditioned room at the athlete's village. Instead, she goes to support the New Zealand pair. Her parting handshake is impressive. "A farmer's hands," she laughs. "Quite useful in bowls." Millie bowls a size six ball, three sizes bigger than average and an asset on the heavy greens of the Bukit Kiara club. She has big feet, too. "And a big heart," Lambert said, watching the bustling little figure head for the door. "She's really quite shy, you know. But, I tell you what, she loves a challenge. I wouldn't fancy playing her the mood she's in." Gold would be a fitting way to celebrate the birth of a 19th grandchild, due any day now.