Seeing is believing, goes the saying. There was a time when Pakistan table tennis teams used to travel abroad more than the hockey team to feature in international meets. The results were also visible as Pakistan seized an unprecedented sixth position in the men’s team event twice in Asia in 1984 and 1990. On both the occasions, Pakistan finished ahead of India. Going beyond the sixth place was a Herculean task as world powerhouse China, South Korea, North Korea, Japan and Taiwan had monopolised the top five slots in corresponding order.
The name of Saiyid Mohammad Sibtain (S.M. Sibtain) is synonymous with the golden era of Pakistan table tennis. He was the man who gave new dimensions to the game by opening coffers and provided the needed exposure to the teams on a regular basis.
The 71-year-old Amroha-born Sibtain who retired as federal secretary was neither a player nor a technocrat and his entry into the table tennis fold was absolutely by chance when one of his pupils, Imdad Ali (now deceased), proposed his name in the Karachi Table Tennis Association (KTTA) in absentia. The position later took him to the upper cadre of Pakistan Table Tennis Federation (PTTF) where he was elected vice-president in the early seventies.
Luck was at his side when in 1972 he led a delegation of Pakistan men and women teams in the inaugural Asian Table Tennis Championship held at Beijing besides having a proxy of Asian Table Tennis Union’s (ATTU) vice-president for Farooq Zaman for ATTU executive board, council and congress meetings.
During his stay in Beijing, Sibtain played a vital role in drafting the byelaws for ATTU and succeeded in convincing Arab and Muslim states to join the newly-formed union. He also represented Pakistan in preparatory meetings of Asia-Africa and Latin America held in Beijing. He was chosen to speak on behalf of delegates of the three continents in response to the speech of Mayor of Beijing at the banquet in the Peoples Hall and was offered a seat next to Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in a historic group photograph of over 500 players and delegates.
Unaware that God had picked him to serve the game, Sibtain was elected secretary of the PTTF in Nov 1977, again in absentia, and went on to serve on the post for three terms of four year each before voluntarily stepping down in 1990. Mr S.H. Shah was at the helm of affairs as president PTTF. Presently, Sibtain is heading the PTTF.
Though Pakistan started competing in the world championships in its infancy, but it was after the formation of ATTU that the frequency of competitions increased. During the period, Sibtain left no stone unturned and the Pakistan team was amongst the front runners in Asia. The three-year stint of two Chinese coaches including Yao Chen Xu from 1975 to 1978 provided the much needed breakthrough to the young lot of players.
The hosting of the seventh Asian Table Tennis Championship at Islamabad in 1984 that saw participation of 20 nations including the hosts heralded a new dawn and marked the inauguration of the Liaquat Gymnasium. It was the largest sports event ever held in the country.
Karachi has mostly earned the lion’s share in the formation of the Pakistan teams to compete globally. During the golden era, club level activities were at their peak. Be it Islamia Club, Sharfabad Club, St John’s, YMCA or Amroha Club, a fierce competition used to take place with an enormous turnout.
The 80-year-old Dr Essa Mohammad, who finished runners-up to Farooq Zaman in the men’s singles event of the national championship in 1955, still has wonderful memories and cherishes the heyday of the game, also known as ping pong. His son Dr Farhan Essa has instituted a table tennis tournament named after his illustrious father.
There’s a long list of silent workers who used to run the show effectively. They, among others, include Zakiuddin Baig, M.A. Ghani, Obaidullah, Ehtiramuddin, Shamsul Haq, Imdad Ali, Zamir Mirza, Waliullah Malik, Shuja Haider, Saleem Ahmed and M. Shahid aka Leader.
Alas, all good work done spread over half a century has crumbled due to dirty politics and the name of Pakistan now figures among those who also participate.
Arif Khan — a profile
Arif Khan, a scion of the Khan clan, is one of the most accomplished table tennis players the nation has produced to date. A product of Islamia Club, of course, Arif represented the country for almost a quarter-of a century, from 1974 to 1998, which envisaged four Asian Games between 1974 to 1986, eight biennial world championships and as many Asian championships, apart from the Commonwealth table tennis championships, Asia Cup, the US Open, China Open, Japan Open and numerous other events.
The 53-year-old Arif, who grew up playing in Islamia Club, has taken over the reins from his late father and is making concerted efforts to fill the vacuum. Though, like a player, he has also made his mark in coaching globally as ITTF course conductor, he, somehow, lacks the charisma of his mentor.
He started the game at a tender age and soon made his place in the national team picked for the Tehran Asian Games in 1974, when only 14. He first got a job in PIA’s sports department from where he moved to UBL. He resigned from the bank in 2001 when serving as AVP there.
The three-time national champion in men’s singles — 1983, 1987 and 1993 — apart from capturing many other honours, Arif rose to fame by pocketing back-to-back gold medals at the Kolkata SAF Games in 1987 and the Islamabad SAF Games in 1989 besides fetching a mixed doubles gold with Nazo Shakoor, also at Islamabad.