It was by sheer chance that I had ventured under the fly-over at NIPA, Karachi to come across a wonderful space which encapsulates a world of its own. Tucked away between the concrete columns supporting the fly-over, surrounded by debris frequented by the homeless, is a unique snooker club catering to the most financially constrained cueists.
Snooker, once the favorite past-time of the elites and until the early 1980s very much confined to prestigious colonial era clubs, took off during the 1980s and 1990s with corporate sponsorship from tobacco manufacturers. With the withdrawal of such financial backing due to legislative restrictions on tobacco ads, snooker once again was lost in smoke. However, here, under the “fly-over” in the open-air space with perfectly diffused sunlight, I enjoyed watching a good frame or two with children from the nearby “kachee abadi”
Coincidentally, just a few weeks later, we were thrilled to hear that one Muhammad Asif, hailing from Faisalabad, had won the IBSF World Snooker Championship! I wondered if the children playing under the fly-over would ever be able to achieve such heights even if they have the talent.
Later, when I read how, a jobless Asif had had to struggle to finance his participation to the event and only managed after the local association collected funds for his participation, that too sans a coach, his achievement became all the more praise-worthy. The children’s future looked just a tad sunnier.
An under-rated and under-reported phenomenon of sports in Pakistan is that often, the players are driven by sheer passion and have to struggle against obstacles which, in most countries, would be non-existent for anyone who has talent.
Pakistan, which has been blessed with an enviable amount of talent and dedicated sportsmen, often loses them for lack of a system of scouting and nurturing in order to achieve optimum international laurels. In recent times, the “driven” ones have also had to cope up with security concerns amongst other issues – an unlucky few even fall victim to terrorism before luck ever shined on them.
And Asif’s case is by no means unique in Pakistan.
Somewhere around 1914 (no exact date available), a boy was born to a Pashtun family residing in a dusty old village named Nawakille near Peshawar. The boy’s father, Abdullah Khan, was the Head Steward at the Peshawar Club where British Army officers, often guarding the rugged Khyber Pass, would come for relaxation and recreation. When the boy, Hashim, turned eight, the open air, cement floored squash courts of the club captured his imagination. He would sit on the walls for hours, watching the British officers play and returned balls that went out of the court for some tips.
At odd hours or when the heat of the sun was unbearable, the courts would be his. He would use overused and discarded balls to practice his craft. But just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to play squash. Unable to find a partner, he would indulge in “Hashim vs Hashim” matches, practicing for hours with all the legendary Pashtun ferocity.
Hashim’s prime years were spent coaching at the Air Force Officers Mess until 1944, when he participated in the All-India Championship in Bombay. He came, he saw, he won – for an additional two more years for good measure. Pakistan did not participate in British Open competitions until 1950, when India’s Abdul Bari, incidentally a relative of Hashim Khan, lost the final there. Pakistan’s first representation and Hashim Khan’s first visit to the British Open came in 1951, at the age of 35, funded privately by a citizen, as the nascent state’s finances were meager. He went on to win the event an astounding seven times, last in 1958, at the age of 41.
Roshan Khan, whose own story is not much different, went on to win the 1957 British Open title interrupting his relative, Hashim’s, reign.
From what I recall from an interview, even his playing racket was borrowed from a British sport goods shop, with a promise that the amount will be repaid after winning the British Open. Hats off to the gentleman who took the words at face value and the one who honored them, though later, the payment was waived as a gift to the champion.
Roshan remained a prominent player in the late 50s and early 60s. However, the world was yet to witness the greatest in the line of these monarchs of squash.
Whereas the elders had fought financial problems and lack of facilities, Jahangir, Roshan’s son, had to fight health issues and personal tragedy early in life. His brother Torsam died on the squash court during a tournament match in Australia. Torsam was to supervise and coach Jahangir but his untimely death was a personal blow to the fifteen year old who converted it into his driving force.
Dedicating his career to his deceased brother, the “weak” teenager became the youngest winner of the World Open in 1981 at the age of 17. From that tournament onwards, he remained unbeaten for an astonishing 555 matches spanning over more than five years, prompting some to question if he was even human.
Lyari's 'samba boys'
During days when the grass used to be greener and skies bluer, I have had the pleasure of participating in some football practice sessions at the KMC Football stadium pitch, lovingly managed by Ahmed Jan, himself a former FIFA referee. As the law and order situation in the city deteriorated, the bunch that I practiced with, abandoned the ground amid security concerns as it was located in the old city area adjacent to Lyari. It is an irony as once, over a cup of tea, Ahmed Jan had astonished me by sharing that it was the same ground where some of the most feared characters of the Lyari Gang wars once played football, aspiring to become the Peles and Ronaldos of the “Mini Brazil” as Lyari is often called!
Those dreams got drowned in the abyss of violence, drugs, extortion, crime and killings. Amazingly, way back in the 1960s it was the same Lyari which produced gifted players like Ali Nawaz Baloch, who captained the national side to many victories on the international level and also played club football in the UAE. Lyari, notorious for its violence and drug problems, is also home to a rich boxing tradition. Hussain Shah, who brought back an Olympic bronze from the Seoul games in 1988, belonged to this part of the city. Lack of opportunities in his homeland forced him to settle in Japan and impart boxing coaching to the Japanese. Do we have more fighters who can teach a thing or two about a martial sport to the Japanese? It will take more than an armchair critic like myself to answer that question.
Earlier during 2012, Pakistan's Ju-jitsu players excelled at the Asian Championship held at Kish Island in Iran. Two of the players ended up winning gold medals in various events and a third ended up with a bronze, while Sundas Salam, the fourth player from Pakistan and the only female contestant representing the country, won a silver medal. As players had to finance their travel themselves, only five players could participate! The comments of Shabina Saeed, their coach and Pakistan Ju-jitsu Federation official sum up the situation.
“It’s a great achievement considering the circumstances. Had we been able to send 12 of our athletes, we are sure we could have won at least seven or eight gold medals there,” she said.
From the rings and fields to tables and boards, the scene is pleasantly similar vis-à-vis performance but disappointing as far as infrastructure and support for the players is concerned. Pakistan participated with an eight member team in the World Youth Scrabble Championship held in Birmingham, England in 2012. Each player selected to represent Pakistan was supposed to finance their own travel and related expenses. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s National Junior Champion, Shahzaib Khatri could not afford it and opted to drop out. Despite his absence, Pakistan ended up winning a bronze at the event. We can only guess if Shahzaib’s presence could have improved that.
This is the way, sports are being played in Pakistan – driven by passion, not funds and played from the heart. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words and the following picture from Nadeem Farooq Paracha’s blog piece in November, 2012 certainly says it best:
NFP writes, “Notice how a Pakistani player is sprinting across the field completely barefooted! This 1956 Pakistan team that was desperately low on resources and money not only topped its qualifying group in Melbourne, but went on to reach the finals of the tournament where it was beaten by India 1-0 in a closely fought contest.”
Sometimes, even small steps and private initiatives carried out with passion and sincerity yield results on the international level. One such example is that of Habib Public School in Karachi which has supported hockey since its inception in 1959. The result is that the list of its students that made it to the national side and hockey’s international “who’s who”, is what entire nations would envy – beaming with the likes of Hasan Sardar and Sohail Abbas – the highest goal scorer in the history of the game!
If only there had been a better infrastructure of sports scouting and grooming, the passion young hearts carry for their beloved game could be better utilized. At the moment, Pakistan players have to rely mostly on their hunger for glory and success stories of those who have treaded the same path before them.
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