Sajjad Hafeez  - The Lahore Polo Club (LPC) is abuzz with the upcoming Polo World Championships, to be held in Chile in a few months. Victory in traditional tiff with India in the Zone-D playoffs in Tianjin, China, earned Pakistan a place in the main Championships albeit skeptics insist Pakistan are only a rank above minnows.

Zone-D playoffs make somewhat of a mini World Cup in Asia; this year’s was a lackluster event as all teams opted to stay out leaving Pakistan and India to battle it out among themselves. Pakistan maintained their supremacy in the zonal playoffs, very much like the Championships of 2004 in France and 2011 in Argentine.

Notwithstanding the honour of reaching the finals, no one is nursing the fantasies of current foursome being the fantastic four of 2004. Pakistan’s best chances of winning the trophy were in Paris – they fared fairly well, giving the main finalists a run for their money. To be fair, Pakistan had already punched beyond its weight to feature at the world stage. Indeed, the gap between Pakistan and the rest of the world has only widened in last 10 years. Whence our big names retired, the game evolved from paces to miles.

However, there are some interesting comparisons in the events and circumstances in the two championships.

The first of these is the presence of Shah Qublai Alam, now as coach. He was Pakistan’s captain then and was instrumental in Pakistan’s victory at Lahore Polo Club in zonal playoffs against India in 2003. Qublai was by far the best player in the country then--a reign that lasted in its full glory in the last decade. In those years, Qublai commanded a team that included his elder brother Shah Shamyl Alam, our very best Hissam Ali Hyder, along with Raja Sami. Qublai’s one strike would forever remain etched in the memory of every Pakistan polo fan who happened to be at the Aibak Polo Ground on that foggy afternoon on December 13, 2003. Either Pakistan or India was to go up the ladder and play the World Cup finals. The winner-take-all situation gave the needle fixture that extra edge, and Qublai that envied status in history with his winning goal.

In 2004 main round, Pakistan rustled up a win against Mexico in the opening game but after that promising start lost to two of the eventual 2004 World Cup finalists -- Brazil and England – and bowed out of contention. The presence of Abdul Haye Mehta as President of the Lahore Polo Club in 2004 and 2014 makes an interesting coincidence. Mehta oversaw Pakistan’s rise in 2003, and accompanied the team to Chantilly in 2004. Mehta lately assumed charge at the club after three consecutive terms by Irfan Ali Hyder and Abdul Qadir Mamdot each. With Mehta’s return, Pakistan scrabbles its way back to the main finals again.  Major General Isfanyar Pataudi, the President of the Pakistan Polo Association (PPA), is in-charge of the show. He was a Brigadier then (in 2003) and his role to the organisational side of the event was instrumental in the success of 2003 event in Pakistan. Representing a royal pedigree etched in polo, he now commands authority; it is to be seen what impact his experience and passion makes.

Major Haseeb Minhas, along with Ahmed Tiwana (the only four-goal player in the side), have the advantage of experience -- both featuring in 2004 World Championships side. Then a Captain, Haseeb was named captain of Pakistan side in a surprise move by PPA in the main round. He was not part of the original side that took Pakistan to victory in the zone-D playoffs in 2003. Coach legendary Podger Effendi, himself a nine-goaler, had not picked him in the side that included all four goal players in 2003. However, following a surprise decision, Haseeb carried Pakistani flag at the opening ceremony at Chantilly, a town at an hour’s drive from Paris. Haseeb’s out-of-the-blue nomination was believed to sow the seeds of discontent in the side, leaving an impact on the bitterness between the Lahore Polo Club and the PPA for years to come. Haseeb now commands a young side and his leadership will be truly tested.

Barring Mexico, Pakistan already has a poor record against South American countries. Chile plays host, and Pakistan would do a miracle if they avoid the bottom rung by beating teams like England and last time winners Italy.