The clock had barely struck five in the morning when Muhammad Tariq heard a car pull at his door. He’d been awake for the past two hours at his residence in Dijkot village, near Faisalabad, Pakistan, waiting for the Pakistan kabaddi captain Nasir Ali to arrive. Together they were to embark on a journey to India to play in the Pro Kabaddi League. Nasir exited his car, sought blessings from Tariq’s parents and reassured them of the prestige his son would bring them by playing in the marquee competition across the border. The parents were satisfied, yet Tariq still had some questions. But he would wait till the pair travelled to Shahkot village, where Patna Pirates’ Wasim Sajjad — the only player from Pakistan to play in the PKL before — joined them. The next stop was Wagah Border.
It’s a three-hour journey from Dijkot to the Indian border. The trio passed time just the way the 24-year-old had hoped it would — clearing all his doubts. Where will I be staying, how are the people there, what if I get lost… The list went on. But Wasim and Nasir were senior players. Wasim had played in India in the inaugural PKL last year, while Nasir had hopped across the border in 2007 for the kabaddi World Cup. “They said Indian people were the same as us. That we’d be staying in big hotels, and they told me that I had all the required documents so there would always be someone to guide me if I needed it. Essentially, they both said that it’s just a matter of getting across the border, and everything else is the same as it is in Pakistan,” he recalls.
A village boy all his life, simplicity was all he knew or cared for. His chores at home were to milk the cows and look after the rice and sugarcane fields his family owned. In time, kabaddi would become a new responsibility. He would often shuffle between home, Islamabad or Lahore for national camps. Yet, the only time he left the familiar surrounding was for the Asian Beach Games in Thailand last year, where he returned with a silver medal along with the Pakistan team.
Still, coming to India, with all the twists and turns history threw between his home country and the nation that would host him for the PKL, was filled with reservations. He had heard whispers about how Pakistani players were not allowed to play cricket in India, but nothing beyond that. “We don’t get news of most of what happens in India at the village,” he explains. Still there were concerns. Most, however, were quashed last year when he, along with his teammates in the Pakistan Sports Board (PSB), watched Wasim play in the league, on television.
Advice coming from a senior player was one thing. But advice coming from someone who had travelled to the neighbouring country just last year was more reassuring. “We parted ways at Amritsar airport. I can’t read, so he pointed me out to the gate for my flight, and then told me that I should ask someone which gate has the flight for Kolkata when I got to Delhi. He said there would be someone to pick me up at Kolkata. And it all panned out exactly as he had said,” Tariq says of what might be a routine journey for any air-flyer but was something that mightily scared the youngster.
Since arriving for duty for the Bengal Warriors franchise, Tariq has managed a minute-long appearance against the Puneri Paltan at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium in Jaipur, making him the second Pakistani to appear in the PKL.
“Last year we all saw Wasim play and we became Patna Pirates fans. Maybe some people back home will cheer for the Warriors now,” he adds lightly.
Yet, more than the Pirates or any other franchise of the tournament, a pair of Indian players have achieved cult status among budding players in Pakistan.
“Even before PKL started, Rakesh Kumar and Anup Kumar were people coaches told us all to aspire to. They told us to download as many videos of the Indian team and watch them play, and learn,” he says.
There haven’t been qualms about admiring Indian players. Political history enforces a degree of rivalry on the kabaddi mat between the two nations. Nonetheless, on the Pakistani front, there are concerns greater than losing a game to their adversary. “Circle kabaddi in Pakistan is very famous compared to the international rectangle court game. There have been more active measures to ensure international kabaddi becomes more prominent,” mentions the raider.
Tariq himself was once a circle kabaddi proponent, belonging to a village where the game was widely played. Nonetheless, just two years ago, he was forced to make the switch to the rectangular game. “I played for the Electricity Board then and during a camp at Islamabad, several coaches came to me and told me to switch,” he says. He goes further to explain his dramatic attempt to shun away the new comers. “I escaped the camp and ran home. But they all found me, scolded me, and brought me to PSB to play,” he adds.
Now that the sport took him to Thailand last year, and has brought him to neighbouring India, the Warriors’ Rs 1.5 lakh acquisition has settled quite easily to his own surprise. “The players here welcomed me. They have been quite friendly and helpful to me. I haven’t felt like a foreigner here, let alone a Pakistani,” he claims.
The only problem he has had is checking if he is served halal meat for his meals. And then there is the matter of ordering food. “I can’t read or write much since I quit school after eight standard. So I’m always at the mercy of someone else to order my food.”