Forgotten glory days of Pakistan hockey

 For a sports maniac from Pakistan who remembers the 90s, there could not be a better sporting period. On 4th December 1994 in Sydney, when Mansoor Ahmad dropped steeply to his right to block the push of a penalty stroke by a Dutch [Jeroen Delmee], not only did Pakistan became World Champions of hockey for the fourth time but also world champions of four different sports at the same time – the cornered tigers had lifted the crystal trophy in Melbourne 1992, Mohammad Yousuf had pipped an Icelandic [Johnannes R. Johanesson] in Johannesburg 1994, Jansher Khan had a way with Peter Marshall in Barcelona 1994. Cricket, snooker, squash and hockey –1994 could be termed as Pakistan’s annus mirabilis.

My acquaintance with hockey didn’t form until Pakistan hosted a world event of its national game. The world cup of hockey was played in mid-1998 in Utrecht but it failed to attract most of the new generation, perhaps because Pakistan, despite being defending champions, failed to put a decent show. Just when it occurred that hockey would fade away, there came November 1998 and hockey dropped pennies for us as this time they were hosting five international teams for the 20th edition of the Champions Trophy.

Of all the Pakistan sports, hockey has suffered the most due to various reasons: team’s poor show, lack of stars and security issues to mention a few problems.

However, now that the team is putting some sort of a show in London, the interest, as seen on social media, somehow is back but Pakistan hockey is still a country mile away from what it was in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. In 1998, the team still had the likes of Shahbaz Ahmad alias Senior, Kamran Ashraf, Tahir Zaman, Mansoor Ahmad, but the crux of team was a new comer, who made his international debut the same year (1998), Sohail Abbas. Those blazing and tracer bullet drag-flicks had earned Abbas his reputation as a penalty corner specialist.

Abbas added a new flair and flamboyance in Pakistan sports to such a degree that even those who were not much into hockey were compelled to reach National Hockey Stadium in Lahore as Pakistan marched into the final of the 1998 Champions Trophy to face Netherlands. Pakistan lost 3-1 but the crowded stadium vindicated the interest in hockey. The final was played the same day when Australia was playing an ODI at Peshawar. But the priority of the day was hockey, not cricket.

There is no exaggeration in the notion that for a good part of the 1990s, hockey in Pakistan was followed as fervently as cricket. Right after the 1998 Champions Trophy, Pakistan played in the Bangkok Asian Games and finished third, getting a bronze medal. The interest in hockey did not dwindle as the very next month and year, in January 1999, Pakistan hosted India for a four-match series and then toured India in February for the same number of matches. It was the time when Pakistan’s cricket and hockey teams were in India for bilateral series of their respective games.

In June 1999, 21st hockey Champions Trophy was taking place along with the cricket World Cup so much so that the last day of both the events was the same, June 20. It saw Australia winning both the events, Cricket World up at Lord’s and Champions Trophy Final at Brisbane – later in the year, Australia won The Rugby World Cup as well. As for Pakistan, they got mauled by the Kangaroos at Lord’s and finished last, at sixth after losing to England, in Brisbane, resulting in their elimination from the next edition of the Champions Trophy from the very first time in their history.

Next year, in 2000 at the Sydney Olympics, Pakistan reached the semi final but failed to grasp any medal. Since 1994, Sydney Olympics remain the only event, including World Cups and Olympics, when Pakistan reached at least a semi final. Hockey was quite for couple of years then. In 2002, Pakistan participated in the World Cup in Kuala Lampur, only to finish fifth in the event.

Later in 2002, when Pakistan played and won a play-off of a bronze medal against India in the Champions Trophy in Cologne it gave fans some respite. The match will be remembered for the arrival of Rehan Butt and how cunningly he converted a long pass into a match-winning goal. In the next edition of the Champions Trophy in 2003, once more Pakistan and India had a third-position play-off. In a group game, India had routed Pakistan by scoring a whopping seven goals, thanks to the astute work of Dhanraj Pillay. But the play-off was reminiscent of the previous year – Pakistan won it with Rehan Butt again proving out to be India’s scourge just two minutes before the end of the game.

It did not end there. The very next year, Pakistan completed a hat-trick of bronze medals in Champions Trophy and beating India in the play-offs. This time they did it in front of their home crowd as Lahore was hosting it in 2004. Since then, Pakistan have not hosted any such event, nor have they won any medal.

The mid-2000s was last when Pakistan in some measure was considered a competitive team. In recent years they have even failed to make into the Champions Trophies, let alone taking the rostrum. They have not won any medal in the Olympics since Barcelona 1992, have not reached a semi final of a World Cup since Sydney 1994.

Now their current display of hockey in the 2012 Olympics has given fans minor hope. The critics have held their fires for a while. If the support shown by fans on social media and Sohail Abbas making it to the Worldwide Twitter trends are any things to go by, it is not hard to realize that hockey craze is still there. Fans still possess the exuberance and frisson of the early 1990s and hopefully the team can match their spirit too.                                                                                                                                       

 Mazher Arshad is a Cricket buff based in Islamabad who considers watching Cricket and giving insights of it as his foremost priority on social media. He tweets @cricket_U

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (4) Closed

Aug 07, 2012 10:32am
I am an Indian who is as much a fan of Hockey as Football or Cricket. Over the years, I have enjoyed the game and flair demonstrated by the Pakistani hockey team. In the absence of India doing anything serious in Hockey since the 90's, I used to actually root for Pakistan as I saw them as the only other purveyors of the beautiful game that South Asian teams had made Hockey into- not the over paced, physical and rather ugly hockey that is practiced by European powerhouses and Australia now. The performance of Pakistan in London is renewing my hope, and trust me when I say this, many in India will secretly wish this team well- am talking of those who love Hockey as a sport and appreciate its beauty, not the die hard "patriotism only" fans. For Hockey to do well in the subcontinent, an IPL style tournament is a must. Both teams have enough talent to be the top two in this sport by some distance. Here's wishing Pakistan well in London :)
Majid Ali
Aug 07, 2012 05:08am
A nice article to read.
ahmet abdulaziz
Aug 09, 2012 05:03am
an interesting write up
Aug 13, 2012 08:04pm
Well honestly, it is always good to remember old days, The Sweet Old Days but I think that PHF has to think of future now. Gone are the days when Shahbaz Senior would take the ball, and you would see him the crossing into the D. I believe that Hockey in Asia started declining right from the time when Turf was introduced into hockey. Our grass stadiums, which were plenty then, were of no more use. And the game became a costly affair. Plus, the edge on grass was, you could not pass long, it had to be short passes, and you had to take the ball to the D. But turf changed it all. And the change in off side rule ended the typical 5-3-2 asian style as well. No more could we play with 2 defenders The game standards declined, and so was the interest in the game. It is natural of course PHF needs to change its ways. I am still thinking as to what was so important to change Michel van right before the start of olympics. He coached Pakistan pretty well. One can always give chance in the greater interest. And honestly, I have my all doubts if Pakistan can do good with this present set up of coaching staff ......