April issue 2010

By | Sports | Published 10 years ago

It was in 1982 that Pakistan seemed to have reached world hockey’s Everest, when they humiliated old rivals India in New Delhi, in front of the then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi.

It happened at the Asian Games in front of a full house, and so embarrassing was the 7-1 massacre, that Ms Gandhi is said to have walked out of the stadium in disgust.

Fast forward to February 28, 2010. Pakistan crash to a disastrous 4-1 defeat against India at the very same venue in their opening match of the World Cup. And that was not all. The Pakistanis went on to suffer four more losses in the tournament, including two stunning upsets against minnows South Africa and Canada, to catastrophically finish last in the 12-nation spectacle.

Pakistan have endured many a debacle since their last Olympic triumph in 1984 in Los Angeles, but what happened at the Major Dhayan Chand National Stadium in New Delhi, was simply unbelievable.

Minutes after succumbing to Canada in the playoff for 11th place, the entire Pakistan team decided to retire from international hockey. Under immense pressure from all quarters, the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) dissolved the national selection committee and sacked the team management, which included Asif Bajwa (manager and PHF secretary) and Shahid Ali Khan (head coach).

But those steps were described by critics and former greats back home as too little, too late.

They had a point. The national selection committee, led by chief selector Hasan Sardar, had already decided to step down even before the PHF decision to dissolve it. The team management had to go because there was no justification to stick with it after what had happened in New Delhi. The decision of the national players was described by many as a pressure tactic with some former Olympians predicting, quite rightly, that they would take back the decision within a few days.

The World Cup disaster, however, seems to have failed to serve as a wake-up call for the people running the game. Pakistan hockey has been on a decline for the last quarter of a century, but very little has been done to find out the causes behind it and even less to identify measures aimed at reviving it.

Barring Pakistan’s stunning World Cup triumph in 1994 in Sydney, our hockey players have achieved precious little in the last 25 years. Why?

Some would argue that the introduction of a synthetic turf turned out to be the last nail in Pakistan hockey’s coffin. Others would single out cricket as the biggest culprit, suggesting that its continuous rise has thrown hockey out of the public spotlight. People attached with Pakistan hockey complain of a lack of proper infrastructure in the country. They believe that by setting up quality academies all over the country, people at the helm of national field hockey affairs can revive the lost glory.

Such complaints and suggestions come up each time Pakistan crash to some humiliating result, be it the World Cup, Olympics, Asian Games or the Champions Trophy. Sometimes a few steps are taken but, mostly, the same mistakes are repeated again and again.

Unless the will exists, there will never be the sort of change in Pakistan hockey that is needed to revive it. What’s needed is a revolutionary change in how we play and run the game in our country.

We have to take a cue from countries like Germany and Spain who have achieved great results in spite of the fact that hockey is hardly a major sport there. It’s true that they have the infrastructure, but that’s not something that’s impossible for us to achieve. After all, the government and to some extent the private sector, are pumping hundreds of millions of rupees into Pakistan hockey these days.

What’s needed rightaway is a national conference on hockey, where all the stakeholders — players, officials, journalists, government institutions looking after sports — should sit together and come up with concrete and practical steps to lift the game. There can’t be any shortcuts. There won’t be such a quick turnaround in Pakistan hockey that our team can go on to win the Olympic title in London in 2010. But what’s possible is that we won’t have to suffer the sort of humiliation experienced in New Delhi last month. If we start today, the Greenshirts could go on to shine at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Pakistan hockey is too important for us to ignore. Once upon a time it helped lift the national morale whenever there was a need. It may have been overtaken by cricket in terms of popularity, but the fact remains that it’s the only sport which has earned us Olympic gold medals — three to be precise. And it remains the only sport in which Pakistan has any chance of winning Olympic glory. It certainly needs and deserves a national effort — and the time for that is now.

This article is part of a larger report of the health of sports in Pakistan: Game Over

The writer is ranked among the battle-hardened journalists covering sports. As sports editor for The News, he covers sporting action extensively in Pakistan and abroad.