Border no bar for oval ball

What if we said Muhammad Muzammal Khan Wazeeri stands taller than Mohammad Irfan in the world of sport?

Or that a light oval ball is more potent as a friendship band than the white leather ball?

Far removed from the flashbulbs and frenzy of cricket diplomacy, a different ball game is proving to be a silent game-changer with a sporting enthusiast replicating the Khelo Rugby model of Calcutta in Pakistan's Bahawalnagar to try and give the kids there a shot at a better life.

Even as seven-footer Pakistani pacer Mohammad Irfan towers over Indian batsmen at the Eden on Thursday, standing taller in the field of India-Pakistan sporting ties will be Muhammad Muzammal Khan Wazeeri, a silent crusader transporting life lessons via rugby from the slums of Calcutta to the dusty lanes of Bahawalnagar in the Punjab province of Pakistan.

Wazeeri, a lecturer in physical education at the Government Degree College in Fort Abbas, Bahawalnagar, is adopting the Khelo Rugby model from Calcutta, which teaches the game to underprivileged kids and imparts not just sportsmanship but essential life skills, from personal hygiene to the perils of drug use.

Khelo Rugby is run by Calcutta-based rugby club Jungle Crows, which was started by former British diplomat Paul Walsh in 2004. "I have known Paul Walsh and Zaffar Khan, the founding members of Khelo Rugby, for long and have been keeping track of their activities through Facebook and newspapers. I wanted to bring about a similar kind of change among my people," Wazeeri told Metro over email.

Wazeeri started playing rugby in 2002 while studying at Punjab University, Lahore, and went on to set up Desert Camels Rugby Club in Bahawalnagar in 2005.

A few months back, he got in touch with Khelo Rugby. "Muzammal Wazeeri, who is a regular visitor to our Khelo Rugby Facebook Page (https://www.facebook.com/Khelorugby), contacted us and said he wanted to replicate the Khelo Rugby model in Pakistan," said Abhishek Singh, the 25-year-old manager and coach of the Khelo Rugby programme.

Today, an eight-member team is working for the Khelo Rugby chapter in Bahawalnagar under the guidance of Wazeeri. "Khelo Rugby has helped in popularising the sport here as children get to play the Touch or Tag form, breaking away from the reservations that parents might hold against the game being a rough and extreme contact sport," he said.

And just like in Calcutta ' where Khelo Rugby has spread to 12 underprivileged areas, including Dhapa, Hyde Road, Nawab Ali Park and Howrah ' the game is already making a difference beyond the border.

"Our region is very backward. When children see that the rugby-playing kids are going on tours to big cities, getting opportunities regarding sports and also admission in good schools on the basis of rugby, they are tempted to join in. In fact, apart from cricket, there is no other organised sport here. And with rugby, they get to show their aggression positively on the ground, which also attracts many to this game," said Wazeeri.

Some of these kids can grow up to be like Abhishek, an example of the wonders of rugby. He joined Jungle Crows in 2004, while he was in Class X. "I played for the club as a college student and by 2008, an Australian company offered me a job, on the condition that I continue playing rugby for Jungle Crows! Further on, rugby helped me secure a scholarship to study business management in the US," he said. And the best part? "When the kids look up to me!" he grinned.

Abhishek and Paul Walsh will be visiting Bahawalnagar next month to oversee the Khelo Rugby programme there and train the kids in Tag rugby.

"Khelo Rugby in Pakistan is really, really exciting for us. For a small organisation that started in Calcutta, it is great that we are now also active in Chennai, Jharkhand and even Pakistan! Wazeeri has been a good friend for a long time and this has really all come about at his own initiative. It's also a validation of what we are doing," said Paul.

But while sponsors trip over themselves to pour millions into cricket, programmes like Khelo Rugby scrape the bottom of the barrel to play on. "We have so many Khelo Rugby communities raring to go and we are keen to take the sport to thousands of more children in need across boundaries," said Paul.

For now only Abhishek and Paul are Pakistan-bound but if funds are raised and the roadblocks are cleared, children from Pakistan can be brought down to India to train with the Khelo Rugby kids here.

"It will be a learning experience for both sides and maybe help bridge the gap between the countries," said Abhishek.

Is Khelo Rugby the best sporting endeavour in town? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com

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