Up till a few years ago, Pakistan, badly hit by terrorism, was considered one of the most dangerous countries of the world to visit. But thanks to successful efforts, peace has been restored to almost all parts of the country.
A big evidence of this is the large number of sportspersons coming here. There are cricket players and teams from quite a few countries coming here. There are national kabaddi teams visiting here, as they did for the 2020 Kabbadi World Cup, which Pakistan hosted. There are the world’s top squash players arriving here all the time for Pakistan Squash Association events. Tennis players are here for International Tennis Federation tournaments, as are mountaineers and skiers.
However, there is one sport that has attracted foreign stars to Pakistan even during the terrible years. A number of professional polo players would often defy the odds to reach Lahore. For more than 20 years, not a single polo season has gone by here sans foreign players.
Every polo season, resourceful polo teams here lure players from abroad. This time, 20 foreign players, mostly from Argentina (the polo capital of the world), have been seen in action on the grounds of the Lahore Polo Club and the Jinnah Polo Club in Lahore.
One of the most popular players this season in Lahore’s polo circuit is the handsome, six-foot-two Maxwell Charlton of the United Kingdom. Rated among the top three players in his country in field or grass polo (the conventional version), he is the number one player in arena (indoor) polo — the only one in the world with the maximum handicap of 10 in that version of the game.
A top polo player of the world comes to Pakistan and falls for the scene in Lahore
Still just 30, he has been active as a full time professional for the last 14 years.
“Horses always fascinated me,” he says. “I got my first pony at the age of seven. Initially, it was just riding. When I was 11, the architect doing up my parents’ house, and who also had a low-goal [amateur] polo club, noticed my interest in horses. He invited me to come along for a lesson. I was already riding in the Pony Club, but knew nothing about polo.
“And the love affair began. The weather was freezing when I saw, for the first time, teams playing polo there. I was also asked to try playing. That was when I got totally hooked to the sport. Soon, I had my first polo pony and, the following summer, at the age of 12, I became the youngest member of the Guards Polo Club — the most well-known polo club in the world. We didn’t live far.
“At 16, I had started playing as a full time professional. Polo has taken me to all corners of the globe. In addition to the UK, I have played in several countries including France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Argentina, Mexico, USA, New Zealand, Australia, India, China, USA, Philippines and, of course, Pakistan. I usually spend around four months a year playing outside the UK. This has been limited by the impact of the pandemic over the past year, unfortunately,” he says.
Charlton by now has been representing the national team for more than a decade. “I was only 18 when I was called up to play for Young England vs New Zealand in 2008,” he explains.
“Next year, it was the national team. Since then, I have had the privilege to represent England in international tournaments every year, including in arena and snow polo. I captained the England team at the 2014 World Cup on snow in China,” he shares.
This season, 2020-21, is Charlton’s second season in Pakistan. He says he came here for the first time in February 2016 and played for around six weeks. “It was a very enjoyable trip, but I could only return after four years due to my other international commitments and tournaments. I am really pleased to have had the chance to come back again,” he smiles.
“Yes, some people did express apprehension when they came to know I was going to Pakistan in 2016, though no one in my immediate family. In fact, my parents have lived in the Middle East and other parts of Asia, and often fondly talk about their time there,” he adds.
Charlton really likes the Lahore polo scene and refers to it as “praiseworthy”. He says that the grounds, pavilion and stables here are excellent. “The standard is quite high, with some very good players, and most of the matches are really competitive,” he observes.
“I am delighted to see it expanding. In 2016, there was only the Lahore Polo Club. Now, there is another excellent facility in the Jinnah Polo Club in DHA, with three fantastic grounds springing up. Hence, there are more tournaments here than there used to be before. The number of teams has also increased. Master Paints fielded two sides this year. As many as 20 foreign players are plying their trade. Even a number of local players have imported ponies. Foreign umpires are also whistling,” he says.
Charlton says that his favourite player is also a Pakistani. “Pakistan’s top ranked Hissam Hyder is not only a close friend but also my favourite player. When I first joined the Guards Polo Club, he was already playing for them. I call him my first mentor,” he says.
“We remained teammates for a number of years. Here, too, we are together in the DS Polo team. But both of us are extremely competitive when we come across against each other on the pitch. The most memorable time was during an international tie. I was playing for England while Hissam appeared for a Commonwealth team,” he says.
For the visitor, there is some good time off the field as well. “Lahore is a wonderful city with so much to see, such as historic places, parks, museums, etc. I have fallen in love with the local cuisine here too. My favourites are chicken karrahi, paratha, biryani and samosa with the tea,” he says.
“Unfortunately, I have not been able to get to any other city in Pakistan,” says Charlton with a bit of regret. “Both times, I came unaccompanied. But I hope to bring my girlfriend Sophie with me next time, so that we can explore this fascinating country.”
The writer can be reached at Ijaz62@hotmail.com
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 21st, 2021