Polo on “The Roof of the World” with The Maltese Cat, the main character.
“Escheatment”, Book 1 in the Maltese Cat Book Series continues with new adventures. Enjoy:
Chapters 1 & 2, 3 & 4, 5 & 6, 7 & 8, 9 & 10, Chapter 11,
Chapters 12 & 13, 14-16, 17, 18, Chapters 19 & 20,
Chapter 21, 22 & 23, 24, 25, 26, Chapters 27-29
Chapter 30, 31-32, 33-34, chapters 35 & 36,
Chapters 37-39, 40-41, chapters 42-43, 44-45, chapters 46-47.
Shandur Polo Match
They took to the field, on borrowed horses and borrowed equipment, the three men playing together on one team, along with three players from Chitral. Here, at the top of the world, polo was played with six men to a side. It was a travail at this altitude and breathing was difficult. They tried to pace themselves, but every time an opportunity came along they played with unencumbered abandon. It was the only way they knew how to play polo and they were not going to be seen as any less superior to their Pakistani polo playing brethren.
The field measured 220 yards long by only 60 yards wide, bordered on the length sides by a 25 inch stone wall.
This was far smaller than a conventional, modern polo field that measured 300 yards by 160 yards, and sometimes wider. The Cat and his friends felt they had an advantage from playing on regular sized fields. However, they had always played with rules. Here, high in the Hindukush Mountains with village tribesmen, they would be playing with no rules and no field judges. Nothing to protect them. If an opponent wanted to ride headlong into them then it was just a matter of courage…or stupidity. Polo here was played as it had been played for centuries. A no-holds-barred, free-for-all. And may the best, or boldest, team win.
The game had gone back and forth and the teams were evenly matched. Kaiser’s booming shots that traversed almost the entire length of the field were no minor factor. They delighted the crowd and kept the foreigners in the game. The Cat also had to smile, knowing that Kaiser was using the Cat’s own developed methods. It was very
satisfying to him to see his pupil in action.
During the game, the Cat devised a tactic that took their opponents completely by surprise. When the Cat first captured the ball in his team’s half of the field, he started up the field towards his opponent’s goal. Then, turning his head and locating Kaiser’s position behind him, he hit a sharp backshot to Kaiser. This confused the other team.
Normally, a team always attempts to advance forward. This unusual move made his adversaries pause and turn back to follow the ball. The Maltese Cat continued to ride forward at speed, alone. As expected, Kaiser received the pass and unloaded a lengthy, explosive shot over the heads of the advancing team. The ball landed out in front of the Cat, who easily took the ball in for the score. The second time he did the same thing, again catching the opponents off guard. The third time, the other team was prepared. As the Cat held up his stick to hit a backshot, the other team halted and turned back in the other direction, anticipating his unusual tactic, determined to swarm all over Kaiser. This time, however, the Cat faked a backshot, allowing the mallet head to swing backward before he had reached the ball.
He then brought the mallet forward like a pendulum, striking the ball forward as all the other players were heading in the opposite direction. Once again he rode forward all alone and scored. From then on, the other team never knew what to expect and were thrown out of balance, always one step behind.
The score stood at 8 to 8 with a little over one minute to play. The opponents had the ball and were bunched up along the right side of the field. The Cat decided not to get involved in the melee. He stood back and waited for his chance once the ball came out of the group.
Suddenly, the opponent’s swarthy back wrested control of the ball. One of their players took off for the goal, only 30 yards away.
Before anyone else reacted, the Cat took after the opposing player, although it was not his man to guard. At the same time, the opponent’s Back fired off a forehand that landed 10 yards out from the goal and a bit beyond to the other side of the field. The Cat’s horse was still relatively fresh for he had conserved the horse’s energy throughout the match for just such an occasion. He closed in fast on the other player but the Cat could tell the man had too great a lead on him.
Ninety-nine out of 100 players would continue the rush on the opposing player and hope to at least rattle him into making a poor shot on goal. The Cat was not one of those 99 out of 100. As the opponent swooped down on the ball, the Cat veered off to his left, towards the goal. The opposing player, instead of choosing a risky under-the-neck forehand, chose instead an Offside Tail shot. This gave the Cat just enough time to position himself between the player and the goal.
The shot was an adequate one, as it rolled swiftly towards the center of the goal. The Cat was a bit late but that put him in an ideal position for an interception. He could have tried a spectacular shot to blast the ball away from the goal which would have been a tremendous crowd pleaser, but hubris was not a trait of the Cat. Winning was more important than pleasing the spectators, and the odds dictated that he should play a prudent shot here. He lowered his mallet in front of his horse and tapped the ball lightly as the ball rolled into his path. The ball scooted away 10 yards just just by the force of the horse’s momentum – enough to clear the ball from the goal mouth. Again the Cat tapped the ball to set up his next shot. Then he unleashed a powerful Offside Forehand that sent the ball over 100 yards down the field towards the far side wall.
The rest of the players looked on in amazement and shock as the spectators shouted out their excitement. Forty seconds to play. Bruce recognized the situation and made a beeline from the spot of the melee towards the other goal. He knew he could count on the Cat to get the ball to him. The words of Rudyard Kipling’s short story, The Maltese Cat, came to him as he heard Lutyens’s voice in his mind, “I’ll trust the Cat.” The rest of the players took off following the Cat instead of Bruce.
The Cat saw Bruce streaking for the goal. As the Cat approached the ball, he aimed towards the goal and unleashed a drive in line with Bruce’s path. The ball arched high in the air and landed 40 yards in front of the goal mouth.
Bruce was on it like a duck on a June bug. Just as he was about to hit the ball, the ball hit a rut in the ground and sprung wildly to the left as Bruce ran over it. On the uneven ground, the ball jumped twice more and bounced finally to the right. Fortuitously, for the Cat, the ball’s path was now on the line from him to the goal. The Cat stroked through the ball easily and it sailed between the goal posts. The score was 9 – 8 with less than 20 seconds to play. The opposition was crushed. The clock ran out.
It had been a good day in Shandur.
As the Maltese Cat and his two friends left the playing field area, after much jubilation from the fans and players alike, they were approached by three men dressed in the typical Pashtun garb of long tunics over baggy pants, topped with a turban-like headdress.
One of the men addressed the Cat in English.
“You played a strong match.” He did not offer his hand.
“Thank you,” replied the Cat.
“You are the Maltese Cat?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I have heard of you. I am happy to say that watching you has confirmed the stories about you.”
The Maltese Cat was not sure where this conversation was leading.
“Had I not seen you with my own eyes, I would not have approached you…as a writer.”
The Maltese Cat realized that he had just met his awaited contact.
“You write mainly about polo.”
The Maltese Cat nodded.
“Not quite the kind of journalist who wants to write about the struggles of freedom fighters.”
“That was actually only a ruse.”
The man cocked his head to the side, suspicious now.
He paused before he spoke.
“Because I can respect you as a horseman, even though you are an American, I will listen.”
The Maltese Cat figured a direct approach would be the best. Who knows how short this interview might be?
“You are receiving financial aid from certain banks and investment companies in the United States.”
The man was silent.
“You are receiving them in a bank account in Switzerland.”
“I would never discuss anything of this sort with a complete stranger.”
“I am only interested on a personal basis. I am making no political judgments.”
“You have no rights to make such judgments anyhow. You Americans have been waging war against us for almost fifteen years. Illegally.
“Again, I am not here to make political judgments.”
“Where or how we receive support from friends is no concern of yours.”
The Maltese Cat reached into his shirt pocket and took out a note that he had carried with him every day.
“You are using this bank account in Switzerland.” He handed the man the note. “I am interested in why you have been paying young American businessmen with it.”
The man eyed him with contempt.
“You are CIA?”
“I am not with the government and I have no political ties. My only concern is for these young men.”
“I know nothing about this.”
“A group of American young men have been connected to your bank account. I am interested in them only.”
“Then you have come a long way for nothing.”
The Taliban men turned and left without saying another word.
“Well, that went well,” said Kaiser. “A long trip for nothing.”
“Not for nothing,” said the Cat. “I got to play polo at the Roof of the World.