A sports ground for a level playing field in cricket-crazed Pakistan

ISLAMABAD — On the outskirts of Islamabad, burly men unite in a scrum on a rugby pitch that has seen better days. The sign bearing the name of the club is carried. The floodlights are too expensive to use, given the high electricity prices and the paltry total of $135 the club earns in membership fees each month.

Looking at the players, coach Mohammed Zahir Uddin said ruefully: “There is only one game in Pakistan.”

That would be cricket, the country’s most popular sport, a behemoth when it comes to sponsorship, broadcast rights and capturing the public’s imagination.

Cricket totally eclipsed other sports, even those in which Pakistan excelled. Field hockey, Pakistan’s national sport, once propelled the country to Olympic gold and world glory, but its popularity and participation have waned. Pakistan dominated the squash world for decades before becoming a shadow of its former self.

The outlook is even bleaker for a sport like rugby, which has neither heyday nor heroes in Pakistan.

“There is no support from the bodies that there should be in terms of funding, dissemination of information,” said Hammad Safdar, captain of the Pakistan national rugby team. “Most sports have the same problem. That’s why, in terms of performance, in the later stages when there’s a test, we miss because there’s no foundation.

Pakistan will host the South Asian Games next year, the biggest sports tournament held in the country for 20 years. He won 143 medals the last time he hosted, including 38 gold. But years of neglecting the sport could affect his medal tally this time around.

Supporters of sports under the shadow of cricket say they don’t have the environment to thrive or win top prizes, with a lack of investment and interest. Even the universally loved football has its struggles in Pakistan. Infighting and government interference have resulted in suspensions from world body FIFA, stunting its growth at home and its chances abroad.

Pakistan, with a population of 220 million, has a national sports budget of around $15.3 million, much lower than other countries in the region. The Pakistan Sports Board, which oversees all sports in the country and their federations, did not respond to interview requests.

Rugby does not receive government money but a grant from the world rugby body. If he needs more, he asks the Chairman or President of Pakistan Rugby Union to donate from his own pocket.

Lahore’s national rugby ground in the east of the country is on the army grounds. There are no changing rooms. There are no seats, so the organizers rent chairs for the tournaments. Rugby development coach Shakeel Malik admits it’s hard to attract funding without results, but it’s hard to get results without funding.

Cricket, which receives no government funding, has a budget of around $66 million. He entered the stratosphere with a 1992 World Cup victory by a national team led by Imran Khan, who later entered politics and served as prime minister from 2018 to 2022.

Pakistan has never dominated cricket as they once did in squash and hockey. he has only two world championships under his belt and the national team is notoriously unpredictable. But it’s a big company with an infrastructure to nurture talent, a thirst for empire building, rampant commercialism and a steady supply of domestic and international TV matches. It is so entrenched in Pakistani life that the prime minister endorses the appointment of the chairman of the cricket board.

Its rise in the 1990s coincided with the beginning of the end for hockey and squash.

Pakistan was squash’s superpower for decades, winning the British Open 17 years in a row in 1963. More specifically, one family, the Khans, ruled the sport. The last of the dynasty – Jahangir Khan, former world No. 1 in rackets – went undefeated for hundreds of matches. He won the British Open 10 years in a row until his final victory in 1991.

Khan told The Associated Press that even he couldn’t understand how the family had amassed as many trophies as they did, with no facilities or investment. “Even today the name of Pakistan comes first in squash, as does the name of this family,” he said, speaking at the squash complex named after him in Karachi.

He suffers from his decline. Pakistan are now 65th in the men’s squash world rankings. Khan said the sport has failed to build on his family’s legacy.

He argues that mismanagement has undermined the sport and that players need to be more successful to attract sponsors. “If people have set a bar, it’s up to you to make the most of it and build on it. Funding is not a solution. You produced a world champion when you had nothing.

And there is also the stranglehold of cricket. “It’s not necessary for all talent to play one thing,” he said.

During the heyday of field hockey, people turned out in their tens of thousands to watch games, Samiullah Khan, a player who helped Pakistan win a stack of medals in the sport at the Olympics, told the World Cup and Asian Games until the 1990s.

“It hurts my heart” to see the current state of hockey, he said. He said Pakistani teams had not adapted to changes such as synthetic turf and rule changes in Europe which he said had turned the sport into “every man for himself”.

“Hockey has become like any other sport, like rugby. The power is gone, the skills have remained,” he said.

But there is hope and an enduring love for hockey. In a suburb of Karachi, a dozen young women are preparing to train with a team from the Karachi Hockey Association.

Kashmala Batool, 30, has played hockey for almost half his life. “It’s our national game,” she said. “Even though it receives no government support or funding, the enjoyment we have of playing our national game is not found in any other.”

Shazma Naseem, the goaltender, started in college and has been playing nationally for five years. She sees the enthusiasm that her parents still have for the sport and feels the duty to maintain it.

“It’s absolutely our job, to have played hockey so well, to have made our name in it, so that future generations know hockey, that it is also a game.”


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