THE BROADER PICTURE; PLAYERS OF THE GREAT GAME

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High in the foothills of the Karakoram mountain range in northern Pakistan, above the broad flat bed of the River Indus, the men of Skardu used to play polo with the heads of vanquished warriors. Today, the mention of the game's barbaric roots serves only to draw broken-toothed smiles from wiry horsemen. The heads, they will tell you, went long ago, but the game endures.

Despite its isolation, perched on a plateau at 8,500ft, 31km over mountains from the nearest town, Skardu attracts opponents from all over Baltistan. They are not, they will admit modestly, the best players - the most skilful come from the Rondu valley - but they are the fiercest.

The world's top polo players may have been fighting it out at Cowdray Park this month, but the sport's spiritual home is on the opposite side of the world, in places like Skardu. Here, twice a week, the village's best horsemen gather on the edge of a dusty pock- marked field to bring relief to their otherwise hard existence. "The first mention of polo was made in the Shaman epic about King Geser dating from about 400 to 500 BC," explains Abbas Kazmi, a local businessman and historian. "It talks of warriors playing with the heads of their enemies, but there is some dispute over where the game originated.

"The Geser Epic is the longest in the world and is still being studied by scholars. There are two versions, the Mongolian, which leans towards China and Russia, and the Tibetan, which concentrates on Tibet, Xiansu and Baltistan, and so there has always been an argument over who invented the game."

Here in the 20th century, the road has been washed out for weeks and the nearest airstrip has been closed for days, but Skardu A team and Skardu B are squaring up under lowering skies to break the monotony. At 4.10pm, with the light already fading, young boys are given the task of marking out the field with chalk powder. Soon afterwards, the first horses arrive to the ebullient sounds of a three-man Balti band.

The A team, including several officers from a nearby army encampment who wear fine boots and swagger on to the field in breeches, arrive first. The B team, a ragged bunch, simply turn up and leap on to their mounts.

For almost an hour, the teams throw up clouds of dust as they ride up and down the field, swinging mallets furiously - most of the time, to little effect. Final score: A team 6, B team 1. The crowd goes wild.

"This is our passion," says Abbas Kazmi. "The version you play, after you borrowed the game from us, is slightly different, but at least you call it polo, our word for ball."

The men of Skardu have read of the British game and believe that they could give its exponents a run for their money. "Does Prince Charles read the Independent?" asks Mr Abbas. "If he does, tell him we would be honoured to play his team if he can afford to take us over to England. Tell him there will be eight players and a small orchestra. We always play better to the sound of Balti music." !

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