WHEN Pakistan humbled India in the ICC Champions Trophy in June, Dawn – and almost all other newspapers in the country – had the news on the front page as the lead story. ‘Pakistan break jinx, trounce India in dream final’ was this paper’s banner headline. But for most Dawn readers, this wouldn’t have come as a surprise: for decades, this has been the level of the paper’s devotion to all competitive international tournaments where Pakistan either emerged as the winner, or was among the front-runners.
Way back in September, 1960, when Naseer Ahmed a.k.a. Naseer Bunda’s solitary goal at the Summer Olympics in Rome brought Pakistan its first-ever gold medal in hockey, the newspaper placed the report of this remarkable victory under a screaming headline: ‘Pakistan are world hockey champions’. With Bunda’s picture below the news item, the newspaper celebrated the event with a huge display, declaring that the victory had ended India’s 32-year supremacy in world hockey.
By the time Pakistan won the 1992 cricket World Cup in Australia, this kind of display for sport victories had become common with other newspapers as well. The difference was, Dawn’s coverage of international events was so integral to its journalism that even as far back as in the 1960s (though not before that), it reported on important sporting events through specially-deployed correspondents or ‘special’ writers.
Since then, the field has evolved significantly. In recent years even several Urdu and even regional newspapers have been dedicating sections to sports, and cover events with proper displays and colour photographs. Although still not close to the attention and space that most newspapers in the West, and even in many Asian countries, devote to sport coverage, many English-language newspapers in Pakistan now have two to three pages dedicated to the purpose. The trend set by Dawn has really caught on.
The journey to success
Back in the 1960s, however, the concept of treating sport as major news events hardly existed. Many editors of the time, themselves outstanding journalists, believed that giving special attention to sporting events meant ‘wasting’ newspaper space. Those were the days when news of even some of the important national and international sporting events was either ignored, or buried deep inside the paper.
In the case of Dawn, in the initial years of its publication sport coverage was not a big priority. The newspaper had dedicated a page inside the paper, though at times coverage was restricted to half of it. This was the period when journalism was in its nascent stage, and the priority was for national and international politics. The world was undergoing major transformation in the post-colonial and post-War eras, and international news often dominated the front pages. The rest of the paper mostly carried domestic political events or controversies.
The journey that Dawn undertook in changing the pattern has a long and fascinating history. The change in policy came gradually, though it’s unclear whether this was a conscious effort by the editor of the time. With strict press laws forbidding honest reporting of political events, the newspaper had started looking bland – its image needed burnishing. So reports regarding sporting events started finding space on the front page. This attracted a new kind of readership. And with a little extra effort, some top sports journalists were hired to make Dawn’s sports coverage shine.
From there on, there was no holding back. Successive editors ensured that the newspaper became the flagship of sport journalism in the country.
The ones who made it happen
It is said that sport journalists the world over are not scholars, with the exception of Sir Neville Cardus, the English music critic who later became a guru for all cricketing writers. Dawn proved lucky in the sense that in its hall of fame, it had sport-writing titans who possessed both gravitas and credibility. Their strong pens and passion for sports decorated the sport pages with some monumental stories.
An amiable Haleem Ahmed, a graceful Anwar Husain, a fiery Ali Kabir, a rather colourful Walter Fernandez and the unassuming but meticulous Majid Khan, who was often mistaken for his cricketing namesake, were all there; pillars as strong as any newspaper could dream of. The reporting team had formidable desk support. Stalwarts such as Suleman Meenai, Latif Jaffery and others of the same generation were the invisible hands that not only gave new impetus to stories but also produced thought-provoking editorials on the subject.
Haleem Ahmed served as Dawn’s sport editor for almost 26 years. Over the course of his distinguished career, he covered all major sporting events within the country and abroad with unflinching professionalism. He was at his best translating the nation’s excitement when India, led by Mankad, arrived for the five-test series in the mid-1950s. He represented a true model of journalistic excellence with broad and balanced coverage, and it’s not without reason that the Pakistan Cricket Board dedicated its media centre at Karachi’s National Stadium to his memory.
In this age of manual typewriters, another of Dawn’s stars was the illustrious Anwar Husain, popularly known as Annu Bhai. An old-school journalist, he had a wit and sartorial elegance that is difficult to recapture now. On the eve of the Rome Olympics, a rejected probable from the Indian hockey camp, Syed Ali, crossed the border and landed in Karachi hoping to secure a berth in the Pakistan line-up. Anwar Husain welcomed him with open arms and strongly pleaded his case for selection, though the Pakistan line-up had already been announced – going to the extent that Ali ended up with the nickname ‘Dawn Ali’ in the hockey fraternity.
For many, Husain’s typewriter was loaded with acid: he challenged the injustice that was meted out to any rising star; he was hard-hitting, which often forced the authorities to review their decisions. Those belonging to the same generation must remember one of his stories headlined ‘Story of a broken heart’, in which he protested selectors’ decision to ignore hockey player Habib Ali Kiddie for an overseas-bound squad. Such was the power of his pen that the officials changed their decision.
A former tennis champion (he partnered India’s famous Ghous Mohammad), this was the sport that was Husain’s forte. Yet he was equally authoritative on cricket, squash and hockey. For many years he was a fixture at the Karachi Press Club. Acutely asthmatic, he was respected by his employers to the extent that his stories were collected from the club by a messenger. Karachi paid tribute to him by naming a park after him.
Another of Dawn’s prized assets was Ali Kabir, a former sprinter from Allahabad whose in-depth and enthusiastic reporting, particularly on hockey, was always anxiously awaited. Straightforward in his dealings with his colleagues, Kabir was known for his fearless comments and his predilection for generating controversies. Cynical, but nevertheless jovial, he was a charming presence in the press box. The rise of and international exposure for the celebrated inside-left Hanif Khan and many others was on account of Kabir, who spotted players at a junior level.
Next in this line-up was Majid Khan, who grew in the shadow of Haleem Ahmed and with time, established himself as a reliable name reporting on squash in particular. International scribes who wrote on the history of squash in Pakistan relied on Majid’s expertise.
The youngest of them all – but no less competent – was Walter Fernandez whose stories spoke as loudly as his spoken word. He was boisterous in approach to both life and profession and administrators were always wary of his presence at press conferences.
Other than the ‘staffers’ Dawn was lucky to have the services of some iconic writers. The jewel in the crown, no doubt, was Omar Kureishi, who was an integral part of any cricket series that Dawn covered. In a way, his lyrical style of writing created a new language for the cricketing press. He never ‘reported’; rather wrote perceptive pieces that brought the game alive on paper all over again. There may be some exaggeration in this, but many cricket buffs claim that they used to wait for Kureishi’s write-up rather than watching the proceedings on television. It was sheer magic.
Then there were the likes of Zaheer Abbas and Islahuddin who contributed weekly columns on cricket and hockey for almost a decade in what turned out to be another trend – the celebrity columnist – that Dawn set on the national scene.
In recent years, London-based cricket-wanderer Qamar Ahmed has stepped in while in the past, former Australian skipper Keith Miller also provided a rich treasure of cricketing anecdotes.
Pages of the past
There was also a time when many leading lights of the sports world were regular contributors to other dailies, generating a lively, healthy competition in the print world. The indefatigable Farooq Mazhar, Khalid Butt, Asaf Shah and K.M. Bhatti had to offer a taste of Lahore, with older-generation representative Sultan F. Husain appearing on the pages of the monthly Sports Times. And, of course, there was the maverick ‘Merry Max’ Maqsood Ahmed whose popularity in the annals of cricket was not confined to missing his maiden Test century against a flipper from Subash Gupte but related also to his incisive columns in the defunct The Muslim from Islamabad. H.M.S. Baig of the erstwhile Morning News who spent less time showing up at sports events but more time in the Far East was the only one facing the star-studded team of his rival paper.
These were legendary writers now buried in the pages of the past. Regrettably, they are slowly fading into distant memory. They were a remarkable bunch of writers and an unforgettable set of people. They distanced themselves from the glitters of public life but left a legacy in their writings.
It is fair to say that sport journalism for the most part was considered a man’s world till recently. Afia Salam was more of a lone ranger till she was joined much later by Farishte Gati before they both moved on to other things in life. In recent times, Shazia Hasan has been handling the sport page in Dawn’s Eos section with distinction.
Across the board
Dawn’s judicious accommodation of other sporting disciplines was another hallmark. Without doubt, cricket and hockey had earned a special place due to obvious reasons but coverage of other sports never lagged behind. Despite selective and limited activities, golf, and tennis earn adequate coverage and the same holds true for indoor games like table tennis, snooker and badminton.
Football coverage has come a long way with more and more youngsters following the various leagues around the globe. To cater to this craving, Dawn scored another first by sending its young reporter Umaid Wasim all the way to Brazil to cover the World Cup.
And, talking of sports, who can forget Dawn’s contribution to the field of horse racing? Anyone who has anything to do with the Derby culture will testify that many stories are pitched between punters, jockeys and the journalists covering the races. Predictions declaring horses ‘favourites’ had little to do with journalism but more with the element of fortune. These stories of fluctuating fortunes were always an integral part of Dawn’s sport pages.
The newspaper has always practised excellent traditions of journalism and established some great milestones. It has been a true journey of sport personalities capturing the heart-stopping moments that only this field can produce.
True that the newspaper captured and recorded the evolution of a vibrant Pakistani sport culture all along the journey of 70 years, but there is always room, as they say, for something more. Sport writers of today would do well to neck out and capture the life of countless talented sportspersons who may not have donned the national colour or even entered huge stadiums and lost their sporting battles in the streets and open playing fields. The unsung heroes.
The writer is a senior journalist.