Credited with introducing Rugby in Kashmir valley, a management graduate from Srinagar is making a difference to the lives of hundreds of enthusiastic sports professionals who lacked resources and avenues to hone their skills, SAIMA BHAT reports.
After participating in a Rugby match held in Pakistan as a part of Pakistan Sports Festival, 2012, Irfan Aziz Butta, a Rugby coach and one of the founding members of J&K Rugby Association (JKRA), is satisfied with the performance put up by his players. The occasion was special for him because he was playing along with the players he has trained over the years.
Irfan, who is a management graduate, has always been passionate about Rugby. He is the managing director of his family business but Rugby has always been a special sport for him. He even quit performing martial arts and other games to dedicate his time to Rugby.
In Kashmir, it is solely because of the efforts of Irfan and his close friend, Muhammad Iqbal, that Rugby was introduced in the valley in 2003. In 2002, Irfan was in Dubai where he saw his friends playing Rugby and he got interested in it.
“Since Rugby is an A grade sport, I was not sure whether it was played in India,” says Irfan. After returning to India, he directly went to the office of Indian Rugby Football Union and inquired about the game. They asked him to meet Pramod Khanna, President, Rugby India, and, to their surprise, Khanna told them his association was thinking of introducing the game in Srinagar.
“Only nine states in India, where foothold of English people was more and game was limited to clubs only were playing the game. And importantly, only one tournament, Kalhagen tournament, used to happen at the state level,” Irfan, who lives in Pir Bagh, Srinagar, says. After returning to Kashmir, Irfan and Iqbal began their journey by requesting Khanna to send some coaches. Initially, two coaches were sent from North zone in 2004 and they trained students for five days.
“Along with our players, we participated in camps in Delhi or other places in India. I went to Mumbai along with Iqbal and Adil Sikander and we were invited to play in Kalhagen cup. Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, Australia and other countries were participating. It was our first tournament at such a platform,” says Irfan.
But it was only in 2005 that JKRA participated in the tournament as a team. They played Beach Rugby in Orissa where nine states were participating and JKRA got 4th position.
When they returned to Kashmir, people had started recognizing the game. Irfan approached various schools to train students and he got a good response. The association invites the Rugby players of internationally recognized to train the students in J&K. Rahul Bose was one of them.
Now, after nine years, Irfan has 1500 players from Jammu, Kashmir and Leh with him, which includes students from 60 schools and 10 colleges of the state which play under-13 clubs or units which include girls as well. A female team made it to Tri National tournament held in Pune in 2009. JKRA has performed in Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games as well.
There are number of players from the valley who have scored well and represented India in International Rugby games like Asian 5’s in 2010. Two girls, Soliha and Saba, were selected for international training course in Rugby. Soliha, who was approved as a paid Rugby Development Officer, now assists Irfan in coaching.
“Kashmir doesn’t lack talent but there is a lack of infrastructure. We have a lot of talent with 1500 professional players. In India, there is no state where such a huge number of players play at a time,” Irfan says.
Besides the dearth of infrastructure, Irfan says the non-recognition of JKRFA creates problems for them. “We are under observation of the council. Recently in the standing committee meeting, out of 37 games, three were shortlisted – Rugby, Rifle Shooting and Baseball. But the cabinet meeting is yet to be held which would decide our future course. But we can still play and get certificates,” he says.
Initially, Irfan and Iqbal were managing funds through their businessmen friends. Now they are attracting sponsors from Delhi as well, “Since 2010, we are associated with Department of Tourism which provides us a chance of showing our game at various events,” says Irfan.