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.”
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.
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.
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.”