GILGIT: Gilgit’s defeat at Shandur Polo Festival was a bitter pill to swallow for polo lovers in the losing region. Many blamed the team’s organisers for the humiliation.
Chitral defeated Gilgit by a comfortable margin of 11-5 despite the losing team leading in the first half.
“I’m heartbroken and I blame the organisers for it,” says Tashfain Rafiq, a resident of Gilgit. “Our horses weren’t acclimatised to the height at Shandur as they were taken there so late,” adds Rafiq whose father is a former polo player.
The defeat at the hands of Chitral is not the first one. Gilgit has been humiliated by an extremely fit Chitral unit many times over the past decade. The last time Chitral lost to Gilgit was some five years ago.
Experts say extraordinary sessions are necessary to make the horses comfortable with the 3,734 metre height at Shandur – the world’s highest polo ground.
The Gilgit team reportedly only made it to Shandur two days before the match and the polo ponies were transported on vehicles instead of sending them on foot. However, these accounts could not be confirmed as officials were in Shandur and not available for comments.
“Our horses got tired immediately after dominating early on,” says a former polo player, referring to the first half when Gilgit scored five goals compared to Chitral’s two.
In stark contrast to the Gilgit side, the Chitral team is said to have arrived a month before the key encounter, thus allowing both players and their trusted ponies to adapt to the testing climate.
Also, the G-B government’s indecision over whether to boycott the event or not is cited as another major contributing factor to the defeat. Shandur is disputed territory that is claimed by people from both the regions.
“In the past, the Gilgit team has withdrawn at the 11th hour,” the former polo player adds.
Passion rules all
The traditional “freestyle” polo played every year at Shandur, the world’s highest polo ground, is unique as it is governed by passion rather than rules.
In most other sports, it is the players that draw the crowds rather than the game itself. However, when it comes to polo at Shandur, things are a little different. The hundreds who make their way to the ground do not even know the names of some players who have been competing here for years.
“I am not interested in the players, but the sport,” says a foreigner who is in the region to watch the eagerly-anticipated match. “All the players are special, but the game is supreme.”
Spectators started arriving in the region days before the two local teams, Gilgit and Chitral, lock horns. An approximated 10,000 polo lovers are at the final this year.
Locally known as the game of kings, polo was first played by a British political agent, Col Evelyn Hey Cobb in 1936. He used to play the game under a full moon.
No player is allowed to rest their horse during the 75-minute match and many a polo mallet meets its end in this game of attrition. There are no more than six players in each side.
“The polo ground in Shandur offers a real test to horses and players alike as both have to fight the lack of oxygen. Forced to breathe in dust particles, players have to fend each other off as rough tactics and the free use of mallets are the order of the day,” says a former polo player in Gilgit.
A jury, formed with the consensus of both teams, has the final say over any dispute that may emerge during the game. Sometimes, players revolt against even the jury’s decision. In a match played between two prominent teams of Gilgit two years ago, players refused to acknowledge the body’s decision and this led to a brawl between spectators who thrashed each other indiscriminately.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 1st, 2016.