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The golden era of table tennis in Pakistan

Updated August 25, 2013
Pakistan table tennis team stepping out of the plane at the karachi airport on it return from abroad after competing in the Far East Champioship in 1963. Manager Majeed Khan is followed by Michael Rodrigues, farooq Zaman, Ashraf malik, Mazhar Qureishi and Shahid Iqbal.  — Photo courtesy :Anwer Zuberi collection (reproduced by Fahim Siddiqui/White star)
Pakistan table tennis team stepping out of the plane at the karachi airport on it return from abroad after competing in the Far East Champioship in 1963. Manager Majeed Khan is followed by Michael Rodrigues, farooq Zaman, Ashraf malik, Mazhar Qureishi and Shahid Iqbal. — Photo courtesy :Anwer Zuberi collection (reproduced by Fahim Siddiqui/White star)
The 30x60 feet hall of Islamia Club that produced severl international players. — Photo courtesy :Anwer Zuberi collection (reproduced by Fahim Siddiqui/White star)
The 30x60 feet hall of Islamia Club that produced severl international players. — Photo courtesy :Anwer Zuberi collection (reproduced by Fahim Siddiqui/White star)
Pakistan team that featured in the 7th Asian Table tennis Championship held at Islamabad in 1984. Team manager Mr Sanaullah is seated in the centre flanked by the Chinese coaches.   — Photo courtesy :Anwer Zuberi collection (reproduced by Fahim Siddiqui/White star)
Pakistan team that featured in the 7th Asian Table tennis Championship held at Islamabad in 1984. Team manager Mr Sanaullah is seated in the centre flanked by the Chinese coaches. — Photo courtesy :Anwer Zuberi collection (reproduced by Fahim Siddiqui/White star)

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.

S.M.Sibtain(R) with Majeed Khan.— Photo courtesy :Anwer Zuberi collection (reproduced by Fahim Siddiqui/White star)
S.M.Sibtain(R) with Majeed Khan.— Photo courtesy :Anwer Zuberi collection (reproduced by Fahim Siddiqui/White star)

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.

He describes Islamabad’s the Asian Championship quarter-final against a North Korean player as the “best” of his career despite suffering defeat. He had beaten the then China No 1 in the qualifying round before getting the better of the 1979 world champion from Japan in pre-quarters.

Arif attributes the success of his playing career to the training lessons from two Chinese coaches during their three-year stint from 1975 to 1978 and terms the period of 1984-1993 as the golden era of Pakistan table tennis.

A recipient of the President’s Pride of Performance award in 1990 on his outstanding performances in international events, he picked up coaching in 1996 and since 2004, as an ITTF Level-I course conductor and coach, has travelled to Maldives, Malawi, Mongolia, Bangladesh, Laos, Oman, Dominica and Kenya to name a few. — A.Z.

Brothers and sisters who donned the Pakistan colour

Saeeda Sultana and Altaf Ali.

Munira Fikree and Rukia Fikree.

Javed Hayat and Sohail Hayat.

Munsarim Saif and Farjad Saif.

Arif Khan, Mehboob Khan and Sohail Khan.

Shaheen Latif and Shahnawaz Latif.

Rubina Shakoor, Seema Shakoor and Nazo Shakoor.

Naseem Nazli and Shamim Nazli.

Rahila Anjum and Naila Anjum.

— Compiled by A.Z.

Landmarks

1979 — Jawaid Chotani wins gold medal in the singles event in the third World Junior Table Tennis Championship held at Alexendria, Egypt.

1984 — Pakistan secures best ever sixth position in men’s team event in the seventh Asian Table Tennis Championship held at Islamabad. The event attracted 20 nations including the hosts, the biggest ever participation of countries in Pakistan in any sport so far. Pakistan again bagged the sixth position in the men’s team event in Asia in 1990.

1984-85 — Arif Khan is ranked 17th in Asia and 67th in the world in men’s singles. Both rankings are the highest ever from Pakistan’s perspective.

1987-89 — Arif Khan wins three gold medals — two in men’s singles in the third and fourth SAF Games held at Kolkata and Islamabad, respectively, and one in mixed doubles with Nazo Shakoor in the fourth SAF Games.

1988 — Farjad Saif is the only player so far to represent Pakistan at the Olympics in Seoul where ping pong made its debut in the quadrennial games. — Compiled by A.Z.

A crusader of table tennis

Money alone can’t help nations win medals. It is definitely one of the important ingredients but in addition one needs a motivator to achieve the desired results. The US could have easily scooped all the gold medals that are at stake in Olympics had money been the sole yardstick of achieving success.

The late Majeed Khan, the founding secretary of Islamia Club, was a true motivator for table tennis and provided a platform for regular healthy competitions to youth so that they could make their mark at least in Asia which they did. He was a fanatic and took pains for half a century to see the game flourish in the country in general and in Karachi in particular.

Islamia Club, a brainchild of Majeed Khan, has a chequered history. It has come a long way from a 30x60 feet table tennis hall with capacity for two tables to a multi-purpose indoor gymnasium, the first in a private-sector providing access to youth.

After getting a go-ahead from his few friends, Majeed Khan embarked on his mission and decided to name the club after his alma mater (the Islamia High School, Hyderabad Deccan) from where he had migrated in 1948. Initially, it was founded in a small rented room in the city’s Hyderabad Colony in 1951. He sacrificed resumption of education for his passion and remained committed to it until his death on Oct 17, 2001.

Those who have closely followed Majeed Khan would agree that he knew the trick of the trade and used to have easy access to the then top bureaucrats. After a period of initial struggle, he convinced eminent people like Abbas Khaleeli, Akhter Hussain, I.A. Khan, Habib I. Rahimtoola, Mohammad Shoaib, S.M. Yousuf and Amirali H. Fancy among others to become founding members of Islamia Club. They acceded to his request and then there was no looking back.

A land in Soldier Bazaar, measuring two acres was acquired in 1956 from the Ministry of Defence, courtesy former secretary Defence, Akhter Hussain, for the club, which was formally inaugurated by the then Commerce Minister, Z.A. Bhutto, on Jan 10, 1959.

It was this institution that set a precedent by inviting world champions and other greats of the game on Islamia Club’s invitation for table tennis tournaments that took place at the KMC Club in the fifties. The fraternity of the game was delighted to see world champions from Hungary in Karachi among them and also the greats of countries such as England, India, Iran, Egypt, Czechoslovakia, Singapore and the United States. Information reveals that the club had organised 13 international competitions.

Islamia Club also had the honour of inviting world champions from Japan to Karachi, who were followed by the Chinese stars after they took the world crown from Japan. The matches were organised at the KMC Club.

A number of dignitaries also had the honour of visiting the institution. Islamia Club was fortunate that Ms Fatima Jinnah graced its first function in Aug 1951. Three prime ministers, namely, Mohammad Ali Bogra, I.I. Chundrigar and Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy presided over the subsequent functions of the club.

Apart from conducting local competitions and coaching camps on a regular basis, Islamia Club served as a reservoir and provided numerous men, women and junior players to Pakistan teams for decades.

Not satisfied with his work and knowing that age was catching up fast, a devoted Majeed Khan embarked to set new milestones by constructing a multi-purpose indoor gymnasium and his dream finally came true when the then Federal Sports Minister, S.K. Tressler, inaugurated it on Jan 27, 2001. He ran from pillar to post to raise funds for completing the project. The then Defence Minister Salim Abbas Jilani played a vital role in accomplishing the task.

Majeed Khan, who also served as secretary of KTTA and joint secretary of PTTF, was blessed with 11 children — seven sons and four daughters — all of whom played table tennis. Three of them Arif Khan, Mehboob Khan and Sohail Khan went on to represent the country.

Though Majeed Khan is no longer among us, his son Arif is carrying the legacy of his illustrious father. — Anwar Zuberi

The writer is a member of staff.

zuberijournalist@yahoo.com