In Pakistan, polo virtually means Lahore polo. The city’s polo scene has remained quite vibrant for the last many years. In fact, even when Pakistan had been going through the worst phase of terrorism and even while the world has been going through the Covid-19 pandemic, Lahore has come to be regarded as one of the busiest polo centres of the world.
Earlier it was only the Lahore Polo Club, whose history dates back to 1886, staging all the polo matches in the city. But a few years ago, the Jinnah Polo Club in DHA, with its excellent facilities, also sprang up.
As they say, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. One person who is widely credited for bringing Lahore polo to such heights is Ishaq Khakwani. An agriculturalist from the Multan division, and mainly known as a politician, Khakwani served as the Minister of State during the Musharraf regime after being elected MNA on the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam) or PML (Q) ticket. Later, he joined the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and was its senior vice president from 2011- 2016, following which he remained President PTI - South Punjab, till the 2018 elections. Presently, he doesn’t hold any office in the party.
Khakwani tells Eos that sports has been a part of his life from the very beginning. “I was enrolled in Bahawalpur’s Sadiq Public School at six. The school had wonderful sports facilities and I excelled at soccer and athletics there. In fact, I was good enough to represent Bahawalpur’s youth soccer team. Twice, I was declared my school’s ‘Best Athlete,” he says with pride.
After doing his bachelors in electrical engineering from the University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore, Khakwani joined Pakistan Railways in 1973. It was during the early Railway days that his love affair with polo began.
The prime reason for his fame may be politics but it is as a former player and administrator that Ishaq Khakwani’s services to Pakistan polo will be remembered
“I used to ride at my farm in Vehari where we had a few horses to go around the farm — nothing more than casual riding though. Then in 1975, I bought my first polo pony and started playing at the Lahore Polo Club. After a year or so, I was made the honorary secretary of the club. I was also working as an executive engineer in Railways at the time,” he says.
“The club had some local activity, mainly the Army teams played there. It had a budget of less than 10,000 rupees. The grounds used to be mowed by bullocks. The first thing I did was to bring in an imported tractor-driven machine, sponsored by Millat Tractors,” he says.
Khakwani was interested in also bringing in international teams and players to the club. The Lahore Polo Club already had a history of inviting foreign teams and also touring abroad, though there had been a long gap in that.
“During the early 1980s, I contacted people to arrange tours of teams from outside Pakistan,” he says. “Major General [retired] Wajahat Hussain, Pakistan’s high commissioner in Australia, himself a former player and an ex-chairman of the Pakistan Polo Association, arranged a tour of an Australian team in 1984. This was followed by several teams visiting Pakistan. A USA team the same year was followed by a Chinese team [from Inner Mongolia] in 1985. Then the former president General Ziaul Haq helped in opening the route with India and a bilateral series was arranged with matches in Delhi, Jaipur and Lahore. A bilateral series with Singapore was also held. Our teams played in Zimbabwe, Egypt and Jordan, too.
“Brunei is among the world’s richest countries. The royal family of Brunei is very fond of polo. First, a Pakistan Army team visited the kingdom in 1986. Then, in 1987, I took a Pakistan Railways team there. Two matches were scheduled. The king of Brunei captained their team. In the first match, the hosts had the services of two Argentine professionals, and we were easily beaten. In the next match, it was an all Brunei side, and Pakistan Railways were the winners,” he says happily.
“During dinner on the day that we had won, the Pakistan ambassador told us, ‘Your departure has been cancelled as the King wants another match, a series decider.’ Aided by an Argentine, the hosts then won the third game. Before leaving Pakistan for Brunei, I had pondered over what gift to present to the world’s richest man? I took a pair of khussas. His Royal Highness was pleasantly surprised to learn that the footwear is interchangeable between either foot. It doesn’t have a left or right,” he smiles at the memory.
“I also got an all-female international team to Pakistan. Composed of two Americans, a British, a Zimbabwean, and an Indian, the team played exhibition matches against young boys’ and girls’ sides of the Lahore Polo Club,” he says.
The real turning point in Pakistan polo came in 2003. “One of my greatest satisfactions is the hosting of the World Polo Championships’ play-off round at Lahore in 2003, a first for Pakistan. It had taken some real effort.”
Khakwani strongly believes that polo has the potential to be used as a diplomatic tool. “I have seen the ambassadors of several countries work in liaison with the Federation of International Polo [FIP]. They are also involved in organising ‘Ambassador Cups’ where amateur players, aged over 40 with less than a five-handicap are flown in on invitation. The emphasis is more on socialising than competitive polo. The visiting players also assess the host country’s polo facilities and see if the venues and the number and quality of horses are suitable for hosting of world championships, play-offs or the final round.
“Tariq Afridi, a renowned Pakistani diplomat and a five-handicap player, was the first FIP ambassador from Pakistan. He was instrumental in bringing the Ambassador Cup to Pakistan for the first time, in 1995. The Lahore Polo Club hosted the event. I managed to arrange accommodation for the visiting players at the homes of Lahore’s polo fraternity. FIP’s president and the vice president also visited Pakistan for the first time then,” he says.
The real turning point in Pakistan polo came in 2003. “One of my greatest satisfactions is the hosting of the World Polo Championships’ play-off round at Lahore in 2003, a first for Pakistan. It had taken some real effort. We were making the bid at a FIP meeting in Argentina in 2001. Meanwhile, 9/11 occurred and our case got weakened. However, we were able to persuade them, and the qualifying round came to Lahore.
“The tournament was very well-conducted. The FIP greatly appreciated the organisation of the event. On the grass, Pakistan defeated India in the final and played the main round of the world polo championships, for the first time, in Paris in September 2004,” he says.
“Since that breakthrough appearance in 2004, Pakistan has appeared in the World Championships two more times, in the next three editions.
“In 2011, Pakistan made it to the world championships in Argentina after the play-off in Malaysia. Then we played in the very next world championships in 2015 in Chile. In the group match, Pakistan lost to the hosts Chile, the eventual champions, by a solitary goal. The zonal qualifier was held in China in 2014, where Pakistan defeated India in a nail-biting final.
“Both my sons Saquib and Dr Zain were proud members of that team. We qualified from the zone which comprised Asia, Africa, and Australia in those days. Hence, one can proudly say that Pakistan remained the strongest polo nation in the region during all that time. Later, it was divided into more zones,” he says.
But 2003 was Ishaq Khakwani`s last year at the Lahore Polo Club in some official capacity. “Pressing political engagements made me leave the office. Nevertheless, my association with polo continues in full earnest. I remained a member of the executive committee of the Pakistan Polo Association for many years and have been organising many events, including tours of teams from abroad. Sometimes I have also accompanied teams from Pakistan on overseas tours as manager,” he smiles.
Lahore today is among the world’s leading polo centres. Taking off from there, Pakistan polo has reached great heights, domestically as well as internationally, and Ishaq Khakwani is the person who deserves the most credit for it.
The writer can be reached at Ijaz62@hotmail.com
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 23rd, 2021