Meet the players of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), who get most of their exercise by running around looking for a place to train or compete. Have a look at the places they find eventually, and that too after paying for the venues themselves, even though they may not even be getting a stipend.

The situation for the province’s local sportspersons was nothing much to write home about as it is, and it is getting worse due to the lack of grounds and other sports facilities. Their pockets only allow them the use of rough, uneven fields and that’s how aspiring players, KP’s emerging sporting talent, get exploited at the hands of local landowners. They have few choices as they look for grounds for inter-school, college or varsity tournaments amid a lack of government-sponsored patronage and a shrinking space for sports activities.

In Peshawar, like the rest of KP, there are dozens of such fields or makeshift facilities being used for organising sports activities. The going rate for leasing out a place is 3,000 rupees per team. During the winters, these fields host around three matches from morning till sunset, thus fetching 18,000 rupees per day for the leaser. In summer, owing to the longer days, this revenue can get doubled.

Be it in Charsadda, Mardan, Swabi or Nowshera, the local landowners have turned this practice into a lucrative business, and they don’t even use the money they earn for any kind of renovation or upkeep work on the grounds being used for sports activities.

KP’s female players, already juggling social and cultural taboos, are the worst hit by the lack of facilities. There is not a single cricket ground for girls to use even in a city such as Peshawar.

Meanwhile, the renovation of sports venues such as the Arbab Niaz Stadium and the Hayatabad Sports Complex have not been completed, despite a lapse of five years. This is also one of the main reasons behind the use of the open fields.

Of the 12 coaching academies in Peshawar, only the Arbab Niaz Stadium and the Hayatabad Sports Complex can provide facilities for squash, badminton, athletics, table tennis and lawn tennis for females.

While the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government boasts of grand plans for the uplift of sports, most aspiring players in the province must make their own makeshift arrangements for venues to train and play in

Sharing her story, squash player Noorena Shams, a resident of Dir, says that she launched her sports career from cycling, in a village where even boys were not allowed to participate in sports activities. “But my father and brothers were very supportive and, when our family moved to Peshawar, I would secretly walk up to a cricket academy in the Islamia Collegiate School for small boys,” she says. She played there with small boys for a year under the guise of a boy before her interests took another turn.

Noorena switched to squash, and stayed with the sport even after a hard struggle and strenuous training, allowing her to participate in cycling, squash, cricket and athletics competitions.

While shedding light on the issues confronted by female players in KP, she says that she came up off her own steam as the environment was such that it might take decades to improve. “The lack of opportunity, along with financial constraints and cultural taboos, can make any girl insecure,” she points out.

Ali Hoti, a sports expert and the director of sports at Islamia College University states that the players in KP remain in a quagmire of issues. “But despite the odd situation, this province has been producing players of national and international standards. Still, they all have a wishlist when it comes to facilities. You cannot overlook basic needs,” he says.

“Our players are pretty much on their own. They do whatever they can to participate in sports activities. But players playing cricket on the rough, open fields are programmed mentally to play only twenty-20 matches, thus this raw talent would end up with no spirit and stamina for Test matches. In a way we are losing potential playing talent. The situation of female players is not good either,” he says.

Hoti regrets that the KP sports scenario is far from changing for the better. “The sports academies are devoid of sports therapists and medical doctors. And as these academies also don’t have their own grounds or sports facilities, along with the many private educational institutions with aspiring players, sportsmen having no choice but to release their sports energy on the rough and uneven fields available to them on rent.”

Mohammad Wasim Khan, a sports trainer, says that he knows of some public sector universities that sublet their playing grounds to private players or teams at a higher rate than what the open fields are leased out for. Hoti says that Islamia College University does allow players from other institutions, even Afghan refugee players, to arrange tournaments on their ground.

Meanwhile, the Director General of KP Sports, Asfandyar Khan Khattak, says that his government has plans to set up 1,000 sports facilities across the province, though he admits that it might take another five years. “Some 204 such facilities of the planned 1,000 have already been approved, and construction work on state-of-the-art sports gymnasiums for female athletes, to be built in all nine divisions of the province, is also under way,” he claims.

He adds that the said sports facilities would be accessible to both girls and boys. “Also, as per the instructions of the KP Chief Minister Mahmood Khan, the Arbab Niaz Stadium and the Hayatabad Sports Complex would be fully functional by the end of June. After completion of the renovation work, we would also see Pakistan Super League matches being played there,” he says.

The DG sports also says that they recently launched a talent hunt, in which 1,500 players from 35 districts of the province participated, out of whom 200 players were selected for national championships and 161 of them, who had put up excellent performances, were awarded support packages by the chief minister.

“The budget for enhancing and capacity-building of players and coaches and sport trainers has been increased from a few hundred million to 21 billion rupees now,” he says. “Also consultancy has been awarded for the establishment of the first-ever sports city in Peshawar’s Regi Lalma Model Town.”

He also says that a healthcare panel — comprising a medical doctor, psychiatrist, nutritionist and physical therapist — has been hired in cooperation with the provincial health department. “The KP Sports and Tourism Department have rolled out a comprehensive plan to address the maximum issues confronted by our young players, as we know that there is no dearth of talent here,” he assures.

KP’s budding young players can only hope that these words are not just faraway promises. For now, however, they must continue to contend with rocky, uneven grounds and their rent-seeking landlords.

The writer tweets @Shinwari_9

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 18th, 2021

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