This India-Pakistan rivalry is not about cricket!

By Pragya Tiwari, IANS,

New Delhi : C’mon Pakistan, C’mon! The hoarse cry in chorus draws attention to the rugby turf as the team from across the border charges on to the field, proud and conscious of being watched in the backyard of their traditional rivals India.

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There is peppering of green all over the pitch, scrumming, tackling and shouting. It all ends in a bare 14 minutes of frenetic activity, divided in two halves. There is another roar and clapping as they leave the playing arena huffing and puffing.

The end result is academic – Pakistan loses to India. The scores do not reveal the gripping excitement, even if it was fought for a few minutes, much less than a hockey game, not to speak of cricket.

“I never thought Pakistan even had a rugby team,” someone whispers in bewilderment from the makeshift stands of the half complete rugby stadium at Delhi University.

“They can be good,” says another.

Omar Usman Khan, the 30-year-old Pakistan captain, has a hearty laugh when told about the awe his team has created here.

“I guess India and Pakistan always intrigue against each other. After all, we share a common history and culture. India is like home away from home for us. I can just go down the street and find myself a glass of lassi or keema gosht just like in Lahore,” Omar told IANS.

“There is also no language problem as people here speak Hindi or Urdu.”

Omar feels, like many in India, cricket is ruining other disciplines in Pakistan. “I have been to India twice before as everyone from my father’s side is from this part of the subcontinent.

“And from what I have seen here I feel both countries are victims of cricket, it is so difficult to market any other sport. I have seen people thoroughly enjoying a game of rugby, but then the lack of funds makes it so difficult for us to popularise it,” he says.

“Pakistan has big boys who have the ideal build for the game but they don’t play because they want money or a job.”

A management graduate, Omar was 17 and an avid basketball player when he saw a few boys playing rugby on the ground adjacent to the basketball court. “I asked them what game it was and they invited me to play. I enjoyed it so much that I took it up professionally.”

“Only a handful of people understand the sport. But I managed to take my parents for a match and my father, who worked with Pakistan airlines and played cricket, really enjoyed it.”

Omar says rugby is fast catching up in Pakistan. “We still have a very long way to go, but the people are getting aware about the sport.

“The Pakistan Rugby Union (PRU) is appointing a development officer and sports coordinators to promote the game in schools and universities. We already have army, police and water and power development authority (WAPDA) rugby teams. So things are looking up,” he says.

In the marketing department of popular Pakistani news channel Geo TV, Omar does his bit for rugby when he gets a few local matches covered. “I even arrange rugby matches for my channel so that they can have a taste of this wonderful sport,” he beams.

Even Pakistani women are taking small, cautious strides to embrace rugby. “Right now we don’t have many women playing rugby; so we do not have a national team. But the University of Management Sciences, one of the top management colleges in the country, has a women’s team.

“But wearing shorts is still an issue with some of the girls back home,” Omar says.

PRU general-secretary Arif Sayed says their tryst with the sport dates back to 1946.

“Rugby is not new to Pakistan, but we somehow could not pursue it. In 1991 it was resumed, but mainly expatriates played.”

As of now, rugby is prominently played in Lahore, Islamabad and Bahawalnagar in east-central Punjab province of Pakistan with 1,000-1,500 people playing in some 20 clubs.

The Pakistan team has not qualified for the Commonwealth Games and yet they underwent a nine-hour journey through Wagah border to come for the Asian Rugby Sevens championship – a test event for the Oct 3-14 Games – that concluded Saturday.

“Rugby is in a nascent state in Pakistan and we need to play more and more matches with other national teams. There were a lot of last-minute delays like getting clearance from our government and the visas before coming here, but we are glad we fulfilled our commitment,” Sayed told IANS.

(Pragya Tiwari can be contacted at [email protected])