The very mention of polo evokes images of action — galloping horses ridden by stylishly dressed riders. It’s not just fun and games either; before mechanised armour took over, polo remained an important part of the training of the cavalry regiments of the army.
This part of the world has a great tradition of this game. The kings and maharajas were not only great patrons of the sport but many were keen players as well. Qutbuddin Aibak, the13th century Muslim emperor of India and the founder of the Slave Dynasty, died as a result of a fall while playing polo in Lahore and is buried in the famous Anarkali Bazaar of the city.
The game originated from Iran in the sixth century BC. But the modern game of polo, formalised and popularised by the British, has its origins from Manipur (now a state in India). The sport played there was known as ‘Sagol Kangjei’, ‘Kanjai-bazee’, or ‘Pulu’. It was the anglicised form of the ‘Pulu’, referring to the wooden ball which was used, that was adopted by the game. The first polo club was established in the town of Silchar in the Indian state of Assam, in 1834.
Polo has also featured at the Olympics no less than five times, all before the Second World War.
A polo match is played over periods (usually four) of seven minutes each. These periods are called chukkers and this term ‘chukker’ is again purely desi.
Pakistan has produced several players of distinction in the game. In the 1950s, Brig M.A. (Hesky) Baig who also played professionally abroad was a well-respected name in the polo world. However, Pakistani polo players who achieved the highest handicap were brothers Podger and Vickey el-Effendi. They proceeded to USA in 1976 and were handicapped up to eight (the maximum is 10 and there are less than a dozen in the world). Around 90 per cent of all players handicapped are rated two goals or less.
Presently, the Pakistani with the highest handicap (six) is Hissam Haider. Only 31, he has the highest handicap of any Pakistani player for the last 30 years. It might surprise many that no polo player in Asia has a higher handicap than him, and in Europe only two are handicapped higher (seven) than our handsome Lahore boy. While we’re on the topic of high handicaps, one should mention that Pakistan also boasts the highest polo ground in the world (12,200 feet), in Shandur, district Chitral!
Polo runs in Hissam’s blood. His grandfather Brig R.G. Hyder was a renowned polo player and so was his father Irfan Ali Hyder, who also served as the president of the Lahore Polo Club, the oldest in this country.
Hissam started polo in earnest at the age of 15 and turned into a full time professional in 2001 when 19. Since then polo is his life and he has been active on the professional circuits of countries like Argentina and England, and for the last few years, Thailand and India as well.
This means his visits to Pakistan are very short. But he was recently in Lahore and readily agreed for a chat.
“I am a fulltime professional and spend five months in one year in England, three in Argentina and some time in India and Thailand. Then there are tournaments in different parts of the world. Polo has taken me to China, UAE, Ireland, New Zealand, Spain, Egypt, France and Barbados,” he says.
It all sounds like a very hectic and monotonous life but Hissam says that “Polo and horses are my life and I consider myself lucky to have my obsession as my profession.”
But does it pay the bills? “More than the money, I enjoy the good life that comes with it: travelling, visiting new places and making friends. Polo circuit in Pakistan also pays but it is not enough to make a living. Raja Samiullah and I are the only full-time Pakistani polo pros.”
Polo is generally perceived as a very expensive sport. “A player needs to have at least five horses for the polo season as the animals get unfit, injured, sick, etc. My personal stable in England has 12 horses and I have employed two full-time Argentinian grooms to look after them. It is pertinent to mention here that the horse is the major contributor in a player’s performance. The role of the horse is paramount at any level and as a player moves up in handicap, the role of the horse increases, and at the topmost level, it is 80pc,” Hissam points out.
“The polo circuits of England, USA and Argentina are acknowledged as the best in the world. The English and American circuits are more professional but the Argentinian is more competitive, just like South American soccer.”
So what exactly put Argentina so firmly on the international polo map? “Well, there are a number of reasons for that,” Hissam explains. “Argentina was one of the richest countries of the world about a century ago. Polo was brought mainly by the British engineers building roads and bridges. The landed families of Argentina embraced polo as their pastime. Even today, most of these families have large farms and fields so polo has largely remained unaffected by the economic down slide. Then the labour in that country is quite inexpensive, too. Hence the manpower needed to look after the horses and the polo grounds comes cheap.”
This brings us to the standard of polo in Pakistan. “As I mentioned earlier, a lot depends on the quality of the horses. Now the top four teams all have 20 Argentine horses each. So the standard here is definitely going up. Then you see quite a few foreign players in the local circuit, too. Corporate interest is increasing; Porsche is probably going to sponsor the Quaid-i-Azam Gold Cup this season. All this augurs well for polo in this country.
About developing a handicap, Hissam says, “It’s very simple: The better a player, the higher his handicap. Then all the matches are played with a handicap in which the sum of each team’s individual players’ respective handicaps is compared. The team with the lower handicap is given the difference in handicaps as goals before the start of the game.
“Almost all the professional circuits and tournaments including the world championships are played up to a total handicap of 14. If world championships are played as an open competition with no handicaps considered then Argentina would win all the time hands down. Very occasionally mega powers like Argentina and England arrange test matches with a total handicap of 30.
“Polo has another distinctive feature in that the amateur players, often the team patrons, routinely hire and play alongside the sport’s top professionals and this is a common practice in most of the professional circuits. If the amateur has a handicap of say -1, it gives room to acquire three players with a total of 15 handicap.”
And what happens after one’s playing days are over? Hissam says that a polo player’s career on the field is generally longer than sportsmen from other outdoor disciplines. “Normally, a polo player can play till the age of 45. Afterwards, many move into managing teams, coaching, horse business, etc. Polo does offer a lifelong career,” he says.
The globe-trotting Hissam, who spends very little time in his own country, is living a life he has always dreamt of. But at the same time he never forgets his roots. Wherever he plays, his horses are kitted out in Pakistan colours and flag. Moreover, the Pakistani crescent and star is also displayed on his polo dress no matter which country he is playing in, even in India. In Hissam, the country has an unsung ambassador who has literally galloped with the Pakistani flag around the world.