A four-member Pakistan badminton team, the standard squad size being eight, has made it to Birmingham against all odds. The players including Olympian Mahoor Shahzad were not even supposed to be here.
The Pakistan Sports Board dropped badminton from its Commonwealth Games contingent earlier this month due to lack of funds, crushing their hopes before they found a last minute sponsor in the country’s Olympic body. With government support also non-existent and private players only backing cricket, Shahzad says it is tough to be a sportsperson in her country even though there has been an increase in awareness around the racket sport over the last couple of years.
The 26-year-old Shahzad from Karachi, who became the first Pakistan badminton player to feature in the Olympics last year, is primarily a singles specialist but she had to play doubles too in a one-sided affair against a formidable India on Friday due to the small team size. The same was the case with her women’s double partner, Ghazala Siddique, who also had to pair up in the mixed doubles event.
The male team members are Murad Ali and Irfan Saeed Bhatti.
“The other teams have eight players. Here, four of us have to play all the games. I am a singles player but had to play in doubles and mixed doubles as well. It becomes difficult to focus on one,” Shahzad said after the 0-5 loss to India.
Both Shahzad and her doubles partner Siddique have government jobs but that salary is not enough to make their ends meet. For Shahzad, who hails from a business family, badminton is passion while Siddique doubles up as a sports teacher besides her government job to support her family that includes five siblings.
Shahzad’s long term goal is to make the 2024 Paris Olympics but despite being around for a long time, she feels stuck as far as her career is concerned.
“In a country like Pakistan, it is very tough to train. You have to fend for yourself, there are no good coaches, you have to do fitness, gym on your own. There is no proper training centre back home. No players come to Pakistan and we don’t play international events that much. So the level is stuck. I myself feel that my game is stuck and I need to train abroad to improve.”
Siddiqui, on the other hand, started playing only five years ago and for her just being part of the national contingent is a real honour. The 28-year-old, who makes around 13,000 Indian rupees from her government job, can’t put all her energies into the game due to her dual duties.
“Cricket is the only sport that gets support. I have to do two jobs as one is not enough to run the family. I am the eldest among five siblings so there is responsibility as well,” Lahore-based Siddique said with a wry smile.
On Friday, the more experienced Shahzad got to face Indian superstar P V Sindhu, having already played against Saina Nehwal in the past. Her favourite player however is Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu-ying.
“Sindhu came to me to shake hands after the game which was a good gesture. Compared to Saina, Sindhu comes across a lot more deceptive. Saina was much more aggressive when I played against her,” added Shahzad.
Siddique is yet to speak to the Indian players till now but she already has a Indian friend from her university days in 2017.
“During the World University Games in 2017, I became friends with an Indian. We spent a lot of time together and she even took care of me when I got unwell. I will never forget that.”