Sports pitch for level playing field in cricket-mad Pakistan 

Rugby players of a local club 'Islamabad Jinns' take part in a practice session, in Islamabad, Pakistan, on December 17, 2022. (AP)
Short Url
Updated 06 February 2023

Sports pitch for level playing field in cricket-mad Pakistan 

  • Cricket has totally eclipsed other sports, even the ones Pakistan excelled at
  • Field hockey, Pakistan’s national sport, too waned in popularity, participation

ISLAMABAD: On Islamabad’s outskirts, burly men bind together in a scrum on a rugby pitch that has seen better days. The sign bearing the club’s name is worn. The floodlights are too costly to use, given high electricity prices and the paltry $135 total that the club earns in membership fees every month. 

Watching the players, coach Mohammed Zahir Uddin said ruefully: “There’s only one game in Pakistan.” 

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

Cricket has totally eclipsed other sports, even ones Pakistan excelled at. Field hockey, Pakistan’s national sport, once propelled the country to Olympic gold and global glory, but it has waned in popularity and participation. Pakistan dominated the squash world for decades, only to become a shadow of its former self. 

Prospects are even bleaker for a sport like rugby, which has no heyday or heroes in Pakistan. 

“There’s no support from the bodies that there ought to be in terms of funding, spreading the word,” said Hammad Safdar, who captains Pakistan’s national rugby team. “The majority of sports have the same issue. That’s why, in terms of performance, in the later stages when there’s a test, we lack because there’s no foundation.” 

Female field hockey players of a local club attend a training session, in Karachi, Pakistan, on November 13, 2022. (AP)

Pakistan hosts the South Asian Games next year, the biggest sporting tournament to be held in the country for 20 years. It won 143 medals the last time it hosted, including 38 gold. But years of neglect of sports could affect its medal tally this time. 

Advocates of sports under cricket’s shadow say they don’t have the environment to thrive or take top prizes, with a lack of investment and interest. Even universally loved soccer has its struggles in Pakistan. Infighting and government interference have led to suspensions from the global body FIFA, stunting its growth at home and chances overseas. 

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

Rugby gets no government money but a grant from the global rugby body. If it needs more, it asks the chairman or president of the Pakistan Rugby Union to give from their own pockets. 

The national rugby pitch in the eastern city of Lahore is on army land. It lacks changing rooms. It has no seating, so organizers rent chairs for tournaments. Rugby development coach Shakeel Malik concedes it’s hard to attract funding without results, but that it’s hard to get results without funding. 

Cricket, which gets no government funding, has a budget of around $66 million. It shot into the stratosphere with a 1992 World Cup win by a national team captained by Imran Khan, who later went on to enter politics and served as prime minister from 2018-2022. 

Pakistan has never dominated cricket the way it once did in in squash and hockey; it has only two world championships to its name, and the national team is notoriously unpredictable. But it’s a big business with infrastructure to nurture talent, a thirst for empire building, rampant commercialism, and a steady supply of domestic and international matches for TV. It’s so embedded in Pakistani life that the prime minister approves the appointment of the cricket board chairman. 

Pakistani squash players compete in a match of All Pakistan Squash Championship, in Karachi, Pakistan, on November 7, 2022. (AP)

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

Pakistan was the superpower of squash for decades, winning the British Open 17 years in a row by 1963. Specifically, one family, the Khans, ruled the sport. The last of the dynasty — Jahangir Khan, a former World No. 1 racket-wielding machine — was unbeaten 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 doesn’t understand how the family amassed as many trophies as they did, without facilities and investment. “Even today, Pakistan’s name comes first in squash, and so does this family’s name,” he said, speaking at the squash complex named after him in Karachi. 

He’s pained by its decline. Pakistan is now 65th in the world men’s squash rankings. Khan said the sport failed to build on his family’s legacy. 

He argues that mismanagement had undermined the sport and that players need to show more achievement to attract sponsorship. “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 cricket’s stranglehold. “It’s not necessary to have all the talent playing one thing,” he said. 

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

“It hurts my heart” to see the current state of hockey, he said. He said Pakistan’s teams didn’t adjust to changes like the synthetic turf and rule-changes in Europe that, in his view, turned the sport into “a free-for-all.” 

“Hockey became like any other sport, like rugby. The power left, the skill left,” he said. 

Pakistan's legendary field hockey player Samiullah shows a souvenir hockey stick during an interview with The Associated Press, in Karachi, Pakistan, on November 12, 2022. (AP)

But there is hope, and a love that lingers for hockey. In a Karachi suburb, about a dozen young women pad up for practice on a team with the Karachi Hockey Association. 

Kashmala Batool, 30, has been playing hockey for almost half her life. “It’s our national game,” she said. “Despite it not getting support or government funding, the enjoyment we get playing our national game can’t be found in any other.” 

Shazma Naseem, the goalkeeper, started out in college and has been playing at the national level for five years. She sees the enthusiasm her parents still have for the sport and feels a duty to keep it going. 

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

Most unwanted? How sports treat the Russia problem

Updated 27 March 2023

Most unwanted? How sports treat the Russia problem

  • IOC says it wants to continue its ban “on flag, anthem, colors or any other identifications” from the two countries but is seeking a pathway to let their athletes compete

PARIS: International sports bodies are taking wildly varying stances on allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes and teams to compete while the war in Ukraine continues.

With the Paris Olympics fewer than 500 days away, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) says it wants to continue its ban “on flag, anthem, colors or any other identifications” from the two countries but is seeking a pathway to let their athletes compete.

That strategy will be discussed again this coming week when the IOC executive board meets.

Here, AFP Sport looks at how sports are handling the dilemma.

While World Athletics on Thursday lifted the ban on the Russian track and field federation for state-sponsored doping, its athletes remain barred from competition while Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine continues. The body’s president Sebastian Coe said “the unprecedented sanctions” imposed on Russia and Belarus by countries around the world “appear to be the only peaceful way to disrupt and disable Russia’s current intentions and restore peace.”

Russian and Belarusian players are allowed to compete on the main ATP and WTA tours but not under their flags or country names. They are banned from the Davis Cup and BJK Cup tournaments. Players from Russia and Belarus were also banned from Wimbledon last year although Moscow-born Elena Rybakina, competing for Kazakhstan, won the women’s singles title.

Russia was thrown out of 2022 World Cup qualifying and are banned from Euro 2024 qualifying which started this week. Instead Russia played a friendly in Iran.
Belarus are not banned from Euro qualifying but they must play home games at neutral venues while their clubs are still allowed to enter European tournaments.
Denis Rogachev, the head of the Russian Football Union, said “negotiations are underway” to play in the Central Asian championship in June and that “a negotiation process is underway with UEFA and FIFA on a phased return.”

The sport has not yet lifted the ban on Russians and Belarusians, which means none have so far qualified for Paris or this year’s World Championships in October. The next opportunity for teams and individuals to book a place for the worlds, where Olympic places will be up for grabs, are the European Championships in Turkiye in April. Russians and Belarusians were not included in the European draw on Tuesday, the cutoff point for competing. Switching to Asia could offer an Olympic pathway to Russians.

Russian fighters were allowed to compete at the recent women’s world boxing championships in India, a move which prompted a boycott by countries including United States, Ukraine, Canada, Sweden and Britain.

Theoretically, drivers from Russia and Belarus can compete as “neutral” drivers in Formula One. But the only Russian driver, Nikita Mazepin, was dropped shortly before the start of the 2022 season by the Haas team. F1 also dropped the Sochi Grand Prix from its 2022 schedule, and canceled plans for annual races to be held in St. Petersburg starting this season.

Russia and the Soviet Union have won the annual ice hockey world championship seven times but on Thursday the International Ice Hockey Federation banned them for a second straight year saying that “it is not yet safe to reincorporate the Russian and Belarusian teams.”

With its Olympic qualifying process about to start, the International Fencing Federation decided on March 10 to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part, although it said it was up to the IOC whether they could compete in Paris. The German, Finnish and Swedish fencing bodies responded by canceling events they were due to host.

Russians and Belarusians were banned from the world championships in Budapest last June and July. For now, aquatic sports are among those playing a waiting game. Governing body FINA told AFP in February: “At this time, there are no further updates regarding the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in World Aquatics competitions.” That means they are still banned from the world championships in Fukuoka in July, but the sport’s Olympic rules means swimmers have until late next June to match the qualifying times.

Boutier beats Hall in playoff to claim 3rd LPGA victory

Updated 27 March 2023

Boutier beats Hall in playoff to claim 3rd LPGA victory

  • With the victory, Boutier claimed her third LPGA victory and became the winningest French player on tour

GOLD CANYON, Arizona: Celine Boutier beat Georgia Hall with a birdie on the first playoff hole Sunday to win the LPGA Drive on Championship.
Boutier forced a playoff by making a testy birdie putt at the par-5 18th to close out a 4-under 68, matching Hall (65) at 20-under 268 in the LPGA’s first full-field event of the season.
Playing the 18th hole again, neither golfer found the green with their second shot of the playoff. Boutier, chipping from nearly the same spot as she did in regulation short and right of the green, pitched to about 4 feet. Meanwhile, Hall hit her second shot into a greenside bunker, blasted beyond the hole and failed to convert her birdie effort. That set the stage for Boutier’s winning birdie putt.

Celine Boutier plays her shot on the 17th tee during the final round of the LPGA Drive On Championship on March 26, 2023 in Arizona. (Getty Images/AFP )

With the victory, the 29-year-old Boutier claimed her third LPGA victory and became the winningest French player on tour, moving past Patricia Meunier-Lebouc and Anne-Marie Palli. She had previously won the 2019 ISPS Handa Vic Open and 2021 ShopRite Classic
After three birdie-filled rounds at Superstition Mountain Golf Club, the final round started with 17 players within three shots of the lead and stayed to form. Hall made the most of her fourth round, posting one of three 7-under par scores, including going 6 under on the back nine to charge into the early lead.
Japan’s Ayaka Furue closed with a 65 and finished third at 19 under. Na Rin An of South Korea was alone in fourth at 18 under with a closing 67, while American Ally Ewing (67) and South Korea’s Jin Young Ko (68) were another stroke back in fifth.


Andreescu and Sabalenka march into last 16 in Miami

Updated 27 March 2023

Andreescu and Sabalenka march into last 16 in Miami

  • Andreescu will face in the next round Russian Ekaterina Alexandrova, who beat world No. 9 Belinda Bencic of Switzerland 7-6 (10/8), 6-3
  • Sabalenka will next face Barbora Krejcikova, the 2021 French Open winner, who beat American Madison Keys 7-6 (7/4), 6-3

MIAMI GARDENS, Florida: Former US Open winner Bianca Andreescu and world number two Aryna Sabalenka cruised into the last-16 of the Miami Open on Sunday with straight sets victories at Hard Rock Stadium.
Sabalenka’s power was simply too much for Marie Bouzkova with the Belarussian breaking serve twice in the opening set on the way to a 6-1, 6-2 victory.
Any chance of a comeback from Bouzkova vanished when she was broken in the opening game of the second set and Sabalenka was in no danger on her serve, not facing break point at any time in the 66 minute encounter.
Andreescu looks a player reborn and she oozed confidence as she enjoyed a 6-4, 6-4 victory over American Sofia Kenin.
The 22-year-old Andreescu, the 2019 US Open winner, has been impressive so far having beaten Emma Raducanu and world number 10 Maria Sakkari in the previous rounds.
In a match with few rallies, Andreescu dominated with her serve game, with a 70 percent first serve percentage and it was not until mid-way through the second set that Kenin caused any real problems.
Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open winner, broke Andreescu to cut the lead to 4-3 but despite the improved forehand from the Floridian, Andreescu kept her cool and won with her first match point.
“These victories are definitely very sweet and I’ve had many tough matches against Sofia, so it feels really good to get through,” said Andreescu who converted all three of her break points.
“I definitely feel like I am getting better match by match, even physically. Like I’m feeling really good. I’m feeling very fresh,” she added.
Andreescu will face Russian Ekaterina Alexandrova in the next round after she beat world number nine Belinda Bencic of Switzerland 7-6 (10/8), 6-3.
In a good day for Russian women, qualifier Varvara Gracheva reached her second straight WTA 1000 fourth round with a straightforward 6-1, 6-2 win over Polish lucky loser Magdalena Frech.
The 22-year-old Gracheva also made it to the last 16 as a qualifier at Indian Wells.
There will also be a strong Czech presence in the fourth round with Petra Kvitova, Barbara Krejcikova and Marketa Vondrousova all winning on Sunday.
Two-times Wimbledon winner Kvitova beat Donna Vekic 6-4, 7-6 (7/3), surviving a strong effort from the Croat in the second set.
“She was always coming back after a (service) break, and it wasn’t really easy already in the first set. ... It was very difficult, she played very well, she served very well,” said Kvitova.
Barbora Krejcikova, the 2021 French Open winner, beat American Madison Keys 7-6 (7/4), 6-3 while Vondrousova beat out-of-form compatriot Karolina Pliskova 6-1, 6-2
Romanian Sorana Cirstea made it to the fourth round in Miami for the first time in a decade after beating Czech Karolina Muchova 7-5, 6-1.
The 32-year-old, now coached by Swedish former Australian Open winner Thomas Johansson, is enjoying a mini-revival after also reaching the same stage in Indian Wells last month.

Scheffler, McIlroy at their best to reach Match Play semifinals

Updated 26 March 2023

Scheffler, McIlroy at their best to reach Match Play semifinals

  • Scheffler, who lost in the final in his Match Play debut in 2021, now has won 10 straight matches
  • McIlroy won with a 12-foot birdie putt, the proper ending to a match that both said was a testament to the quality of golf required

AUSTIN, Texas: The golf was as good as it gets. Rory McIlroy made 17 birdies in the 36 holes he played Saturday. Defending champion Scottie Scheffler rallied with six birdies in his last nine holes to reach the semifinals for the third straight year.

A little luck never hurts in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. And as great as McIlroy played, he needed some of that, too.

McIlroy never led in his quarterfinals match against Xander Schauffele. They came to the 18th hole all square, and McIlroy slumped slightly when he saw his drive headed left toward the trees. Schauffele hit his shot and quickly picked up his tee.

Imagine their surprise. McIlroy came upon a golf ball behind a tree and figured it was his. Schauffele was walking behind him and was stunned when McIlroy kept going.

“He hit a worse drive than I did and he ended up fine,” Schauffele said.

He got no argument from McIlroy.

“I expected my ball to be Xander’s ball on 18 behind that tree, and I got fortunate that mine trundled down the hill and obviously made the chip shot a lot easier,” McIlroy said. “Look, you need a little bit of fortune in these things, and that was a bit of luck for me today.”

McIlroy won with a 12-foot birdie putt, the proper ending to a match that both said was a testament to the quality of golf required. Schauffele applauded all the pivotal putts McIlroy made to stay in the fight.

It was like that all over Austin Country Club. The final version of Match Play lived up to its edge-of-the-seat reputation, with wild turns of momentum until four players remained.

Sam Burns advanced by beating Patrick Cantlay in 17 holes and then overcoming an early deficit to beat Mackenzie Hughes of Canada, 3 and 2, to reach the semifinals.

Burns advances to meet Scheffler, his best friend on tour with whom he often shares a house when they’re on the road. Their last encounter was at Colonial last year, when Burns made a 45-foot birdie putt to beat Scheffler in a playoff.

Cameron Young looked as if he had an easy time, until it wasn’t. He was 3 up at the turn, missed a chance to go 4 up on the 12th and then had to go to the 18th hole before he could dispatch of Bay Hill winner Kurt Kitayama.

Scheffler, who lost in the final in his Match Play debut in 2021, now has won 10 straight matches. He was 2 down against J.T. Poston in the morning with five holes left when he birdied the 17th to square the match and won the 18th with a par.

He was 3 down against former Match Play champion Jason Day through seven holes in the quarterfinals when he battled back, taking his first lead with a birdie on the 13th and then pulling away. He closed it out with a wedge to 2 inches on the 17th.

Scheffler said he and caddie Ted Scott had a chat when Day went birdie-birdie-eagle on the front nine to go 3 up. The eagle came on a 5-wood from 282 yards to 5 feet on the par-5 sixth hole at Austin Country Club.

“Just ride out the heater,” Scheffler said. “I had to stay patient.”

Day began to struggle with allergies on the eighth hole, and then Scheffler had a heater of his own by making six birdies over their final nine holes.

McIlroy reached the quarterfinals by making nine birdies against Lucas Herbert, and it still wasn’t decided until the 18th hole.

“I got to beaten by the best player in the world probably playing the best golf of anyone in the world would today,” Herbert said. “Pushed him all the way to the end. I just didn’t feel like there was a hell of a lot more I could have done.”

Schauffele made seven birdies against McIlroy and it wasn’t enough.

“I needed to dig deep,” McIlroy said. “He’s one of the best players in the world. I knew I was going to need to produce something similar to this morning. I was 16 under for two rounds of golf. That shows the caliber you need to play out there.”

Next up for McIlroy is Young, who finished ahead of him at St. Andrews last year with a 31 on the back nine. Young has made 31 birdies and two eagles in his five matches this week. He won his group on Friday with a 5-and-3 win. He made it through Saturday morning with a 5-and-4 rout of Billy Horschel. He was on his way to another romp against Kitayama.

But he missed a 5-foot birdie putt on the 12th that would have put him 4 up. Kitayama won the next two holes with birdies. Young missed from 10 feet for birdie, 15 feet for eagle and 10 feet for birdie on the next three, all three putts burning the edge.

Ultimately, he only needed two putts from 15 feet on the 18th for the win. That was about the only easy part of his back nine.

“I don’t think I made a bogey today and I was biting my nails trying to win my match,” Young said. “I think it just shows you the quality of golf that’s played out here and how hard it is to get through even just one day like today, never mind that today was our fifth match.”

Day earlier on Saturday beat Matt Kuchar, leaving the 44-year-old American one match short of the tournament record. Kuchar leaves sharing the mark of 36 wins with Tiger Woods.

Now it’s Scheffler’s turn. Woods is the only player to win Match Play back to back. One day remains, and it feels like a long way to go.

Broadhead to the rescue as Wales draw Euro 2024 qualifier with Croatia

Updated 26 March 2023

Broadhead to the rescue as Wales draw Euro 2024 qualifier with Croatia

  • Wales have now gone nine games without a win but this result will doubtless feel like a victory for Rob Page’s men

SPLIT, Croatia: Debutant Nathan Broadhead proved an unlikely savior as Wales started life without Gareth Bale by snatching a 1-1 draw in a Euro 2024 qualifier against World Cup semifinalists Croatia in Split on Saturday.

Andrej Kramaric’s first-half strike looked like it would be enough to give group favorites Croatia a winning start to their campaign.

And the hosts were still in front until the third and final minute of stoppage time when Croatia failed to clear Connor Roberts’ long throw and substitute Broadhead squeezed the ball in at the far post.

Wales have now gone nine games without a win but this result will doubtless feel like a victory for Rob Page’s men.

There was no disguising the joy felt by the 24-year-old Broadhead, who now plays his club football for English third-tier side Ipswich following a January move from Premier League strugglers Everton.

“I got a bit overwhelmed to be honest, a bit emotional,” Broadhead told S4C. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for so long.

“We needed a point, we came here to try and win but to get a point is good as well. We are made up.”