President Dwight Eisenhower sporting the green blazer of the Pakistan Cricket Team shaking hands with the team Captain Fazal Mahmood at National Stadium, Karachi, during the Third Test played against Australia on December 8, 1959. (Courtesy: Ayub Khan Archive/ Tahir Ayub)
President Dwight Eisenhower sporting the green blazer of the Pakistan Cricket Team shaking hands with the team Captain Fazal Mahmood at National Stadium, Karachi, during the Third Test played against Australia on December 8, 1959. (Courtesy: Ayub Khan Archive/ Tahir Ayub)

SPORTS in many ways is the bond that has over the years kept the nation – the Pakistani nation – united in even the trickiest of times. After all, our sportspersons were the first to have the national flag raised around the world. In doing so, they provided the nation its identity in the larger world. And it was an identity that had pride and passion as its key characteristics.

In April 1951, for instance, Hashim Khan rose from nowhere to pick up the British Open title which at the time was considered the world championship. Till then, on the international stage, Pakistan had thus far featured in two events; the war and UN-led ceasefire in Kashmir in 1948, and the decision to join the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in 1950. It is not too hard to see what sports was able to do in terms of promoting a soft, positive image of Pakistan.

Interestingly, while the country was in its nascent years, the great Khan was in his late-30s when he grabbed international headlines, which is well past the shelf life of most international players. When he lifted the last of his seven trophies, he was in his mid-40s. The only time he failed to finish at the top was in 1957 when another Pakistani, Roshan Khan, beat him in the final. His last title came in 1958, a few months ahead of the country’s first martial law!

During the 1950s, Hashim Khan was not alone on the global circuit. In fact, he was in good company as the national cricket team started catching the global eye right after the country got its Test status. Led by Abdul Hafeez Kardar, Pakistan became, and has since remained, the only country to win at least one Test in its debut series with all the other Test-playing countries, beating India in Lucknow in 1952, England at The Oval in 1954, New Zealand and Australia in Karachi in 1955 and 1956, respectively, and the West Indies in Trinidad in 1958.

The overall decline in sport in Pakistan has been as rapid and spectacular as success had once been, laments former national hockey champion

The public imagination was captured like nothing else by the exploits, among others, of Fazal Mahmood, especially at The Oval, and Hanif Mohammad, the original Little Master. At the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados, Hanif became just the sixth player at the time to score a triple century. But more than the century, it was the making of it that won the hearts of the people and the wider appreciation of the cricketing world for its grit and determination.

With a first innings deficit of 473 runs and with more than three days to go, Hanif dropped anchor, batting for nine consecutive sessions, and lasted a world record 970 minutes to help Pakistan earn a respectable draw. His record stands to date, and his 337 remains one of the game’s all-time epics.

It was this concoction of heroics against heavy odds and resilience in the face of grim adversity that provided the nation with the high it needed while grappling with its own woes in certain other and perhaps more critical segments of national life.

With squash and cricket running parallel in terms of timeline and exploits, Abdul Khaliq earned himself the title of the Fastest Man of Asia when he set a new record of 100-meter sprint in 10.6 seconds at the 1954 Asian Games.

In subsequent editions of the Games, he was given good company by Abdul Raziq, Mohammad Iqbal, Mohammad Nawaz and Mubarik Shah in the track-and-field segment, while medals were also earned in wrestling, weightlifting, cycling, boxing and volleyball. From 13 medals at the 1954 edition of the Games, Pakistan’s tally rose to 28 in 1962; a peak that has never been touched since.

Elsewhere, Khwaja Saeed Hai made his mark in tennis, becoming the first Pakistani to reach the main draw of a Grand Slam through qualifying rounds. He subsequently made appearances at the Wimbledon Championships, the French Open and the US Open from 1955 onwards in addition to being a regular at Davies Cup encounters.

When the French Tennis Federation celebrated the centenary of French Open, it built a commemorative wall at the famed Roland Garros, displaying the names of players who had done well at the tournament. Saeed Hai’s name was good enough to feature on that wall.

The National Game

With all this happening, hockey was taking its time and there was a reason behind it. Unlike cricket, there was no tradition of bilateral encounters in the game. It depended on international invitational tournaments, and the lone global title was the Olympics. After failing to make it big at the 1948 and 1952 editions, Pakistan registered its first podium finish at the 1956 Olympics, held in Melbourne, Australia, with a silver medal. It was also Pakistan’s first Olympics medal in any discipline.

Along with it came the gold medal at the Asian Games in which hockey was included for the first time in 1958. This was the country’s first gold medal in an international hockey competition, and was followed by gold at the 1960 Olympics and the 1962 Asian Games.

Between 1956 and 1972, Pakistan featured in five consecutive Olympic finals that netted two gold medals and three silver. This coincided with four gold medals and one silver at the Asian Games between 1958 and 1974. Sandwiched between the two events was the World Cup that was conceptualised, introduced and executed by Pakistan though hosted in Spain owing to the troubled times Pakistan was facing in 1971.

With this glut of silverware, hockey more than justified its status of being the National Game, and within no time Abdul Hamid Hameedi, M.H. Atif, Abdul Waheed Khan, Anwaar Ahmed Khan, Naseer Bunda, Tanvir Dar and many others became household names.

Interestingly, most of these encounters were reflective of something more than a mere victory on the hockey field. They actually provided some sort of catharsis to a nation wronged by its neighbours with which it had to cut its umbilical cord to become an independent nation. The extra bit of excitement and tension that mark Pakistan-India games was sustained by hockey even though the younger generation generally associates it with cricket.

Since bilateral games were not part of the larger hockey tradition, the two countries only met in international tournaments and there was always more than the match at stake because more often than not, the two teams met in the finals.

Since Pakistan’s inaugural cricketing tour to India in 1952, the two nations met only thrice over the next about nine years. And from 1961 to 1978, there were no cricketing ties at all. During all these long years, the burden of sporting rivalry was carried by hockey owing to the encounters in Olympics, Asian Games and the World Cup.

Hockey field or the battlefield

In effect, the two countries met either on the hockey field or on the battlefield in that lengthy phase. The intensity of the latter got seamlessly transferred to the former. It was only natural that in due course, sports also took on military overtones, and hockey represented the life-and-death pendulum for the masses.

Starting 1951 with Hashim Khan, all this global glory in the sporting arena was in contrast to the political merry-go-round in the country. Foreign Minister Chaudhry Zafarullah Khan did make his mark when he became a member of the International Court of Justice and subsequently became its vice-president, but other than that, sports remained the nation’s identity in the larger global community, especially at the people’s level.

I started my international hockey days in 1967, two decades after independence, mind you. But even then I was taken by surprise on various occasions when I came across people who had never heard anything about Pakistan, and it was only because of our team’s performance on the hockey field that made them curious enough to have a handshake with us and get to know a few things about our great land.

My memories are quite vivid about the 1972 Olympics that took place in the German city of Munich. As a tradition, players of rival teams exchange national colours or badges at the start of the match. Almost at every match we played, during such traditional exchanges I found players from various participating countries unable to make out our identity. It was only after the word Pakistan was uttered to them that they used to instantly remark, “Oh, Pakistan! Hockey ... Number one in the world!”

The 1978 World Cup in the Argentinean city of Buenos Aires was the first time for a huge number of Argentineans to have ever heard of Pakistan. By the end of the tournament, however, the Pakistan team was not only recognised but also cheered around the grounds. It was all because the players had been able to impress the natives with their performance. Lives of most people who played with me, or before me, are riddled with such memories.

As a player it has always been an honour to be representing the country. I have never come across anyone who may not share this sentiment. Whatever the sports, the sentiment remains the same. But more than being mere representatives, Pakistani players have been more of an ambassador for the country, winning people’s hearts and building bridges between peoples in a much more effective manner than, may I dare say, some of the country’s designated ambassadors.

So, it was hockey, cricket and, of course, squash that in the early years brought glory to the country. But more important in the context of the circumstances, perhaps, was the fact that sports victories were able to earn recognition and goodwill for Pakistan.

Internally, sports provided the psychological distraction the masses needed as a nation.

Sports, in many ways, was the most potent nation-building tool at the country’s disposal. This made the sportsmen work even harder for they were carrying on their shoulders the hopes of an entire nation. They were always under the microscope of public eye that was aided in ample measure by the magnifying glass of the national media. An opinion piece by seasoned sports journalist Haleem Ahmed in the Dawn issue of Aug 14, 1967, carried the headline: ‘Decline in sports: causes and cure’. Today, we look back at those very years with misty eyes and talk of ‘the past glory’, but when it was all happening, we, the sportspersons, had our critics.

Perhaps that was one reason we tried to excel beyond our own individual capacities. Just a year after the said article in Dawn, for instance, Pakistan won hockey gold at the 1968 Olympics. Maybe Dawn can claim to have some share in that victory!

The mid-1970s saw Pakistan sports hitting a fresh purple patch and with a lot of new heroes. From Qamaruzzaman and Mohibullah Khan to Hidayat Jahan and Gogi Allaudin, Pakistan ruled the squash world.

In cricket, Mushtaq Mohammad, as captain, took Pakistan to another level, registering wins against Australia and the West Indies on away tours as well as home victories against New Zealand and India. This he did by invigorating the nucleus of the team which comprised the likes of Majid Khan, Sadiq Mohammad, Zaheer Abbas and Asif Iqbal. He gave confidence to the mercurial Wasim Raja that enabled him to do some justice to his enormous all-round talent, and turned Imran Khan into Pakistan’s first truly fast bowler with the venom that terrorised his opponents in later years. And, of course, he brought into the national fold a young lad named Javed Miandad.

In hockey, the mid-1970s was when the team had a realistic chance of clinching the gold whenever and wherever it contested. It all peaked quite nicely in 1978 when Pakistan, in a rare bilateral interaction with India, defeated the archrival 3-1 in a four-match series during which two games were played in India. In Karachi, Pakistan defeated India with an unprecedented 6-0 scoreline.

Pakistan was flying high with gold medals at the World Cup, the Asian Games and the Champions Trophy. To be the national captain at the time, which I was lucky enough to be, was a matter of honour and pride. The only piece missing from the trophy cabinet was the Olympics title, and there was every chance to grab it at the 1980 edition in Moscow. We were never closer to a true grand slam in hockey, but that was not to be because Pakistan decided to boycott the games for reasons that had nothing to do with sports at large.

During 1978, Pakistan also made advances in sailing, with Byram D. Avari and Munir Sadiq picking up gold at the Asian Games; a feat that Byram subsequently repeated with his wife Goshpi.

The biggest champion that all this energy of the 1970s produced was the legendary Jahangir Khan who became the youngest squash player in history to win the World Open Championship in 1981. At the age of 17, he announced his arrival on the international stage in style, ending the long reign of Australia’s Geoff Hunt.

Between 1981 and 1986, he recorded the longest winning streak in any sport, remaining undefeated in 555 consecutive matches played over five years and eight months.

By the time he hung his boots, he had six World Open and 10 consecutive British Open titles to his credit.

Jahangir: the ultimate champion

In the latter half of 1980s, it was almost customary to find Jahangir Khan battling it out in tournament finals against compatriot Jansher Khan. - Photo: Dawn Archives
In the latter half of 1980s, it was almost customary to find Jahangir Khan battling it out in tournament finals against compatriot Jansher Khan. - Photo: Dawn Archives

In the latter half of 1980s, it was almost customary to find Jahangir battling it out in tournament finals against compatriot Jansher Khan who ended with eight World Open and six British Open titles of his own, having remained the World No 1 for a record 513 weeks, which is just seven weeks shy of a decade; from 1988 to 1998.

Coinciding with the exploits in squash was Pakistan’s last hurrah in hockey and the Olympics at large. Of the 10 Olympics medals ever won by Pakistan, eight have been in hockey; the only two exceptions being wrestler Mohammad Bashir in 1960 and boxer Syed Hussain Shah in 1988.

Our last Olympics title came in 1984, and the last podium finish was a bronze in 1992. The last World Cup and Champions Trophy gold came in 1994. Over the last quarter of a century, we first had to face the ignominy of playing qualifying rounds for global tiles before facing the ultimate humiliation of failing to qualify for the main round.

At the Asian Games, where the competition is less stiff, the last gold came in 2010, and the last podium finish in 2014, but this is nothing compared to our complete ascendency till 1990 when we brought back seven gold and two silver in the first nine editions.

Overall, of the 204 medals Pakistan has won at the Asian Games in various disciplines, 170 came in the first 12 editions that were held till 1998 compared to only 34 since the turn of the century.

The year 1994 was an amazing one for Pakistan as it simultaneously held the title of World Champions in four different arenas; two each in team events – Cricket and Hockey, and two in individual outings – Jansher Khan in squash and Muhammad Yousaf in snooker. As if all this was not enough, Pakistan Veterans also clinched the Masters Hockey World Cup that was held in Australia. That was a memorable year at many levels, but in the last quarter of a century, things have generally been downhill.

The only big news, for instance, in Pakistan hockey in that time relates to penalty corner specialist Sohail Abbas. In 1999, he scored the highest number of goals in a calendar year, netting 60 times. In 2004, he scored his 268th goal to break the record for most international goals by a player. He later became the first player in the history of international hockey to score more than 300 goals for his national side, and ended his career as the highest penalty corner converter with 348 goals. Known for his raw power and drag-flicks, he was also the fastest to score 100 and 200 goals, and also holds the almost unbeatable record of one double hat trick and 21 hat tricks in international hockey.

The fact that the team could not make it big despite the heroics of Sohail Abbas says a lot about the magnitude of the decline. On its part, the national cricket outfit has pretty much been the saviour despite crowning itself as the most unpredictable side in the game. The iconic win at the World Cup in 1992 under Imran Khan was followed by the T20 title under Younis Khan in 2009, the ICC Test Championship in 2016 with Misbahul Haq as the skipper, and the Champions Trophy in 2017 with Sarfaraz Ahmed leading the side.

It is also in cricket that Pakistani women have been able to make their most prominent strides forward compared to any other sporting arena. Though it remains a side in infancy, Pakistan women’s team did clinch the gold at Asian Games in 2010 and 2014.

We cannot shy away from the fact that it is also in cricket, incidentally, that the nation has suffered its biggest embarrassment. While one can live with being an inconsistent outfit, the repulsive sleaze and scorn that surrounded the two match-fixing scams over the years tarnished the nation’s image rather badly.

As can be seen, the overall decline in sports, quite regrettably, has been as spectacular as the success had once been. In none of the sports, the national flag is fluttering the way it used to be. And this is here where the stream of sports joins the larger flow of our national life. The malaise is the same; a lack of system.

Take education, health, economy, governance, anything; characteristics of the system remain very much the same: absence of institutions, absence of accountability, ad-hocism, nepotism, across-the-board frivolity, lack of understanding, and, on top of it all, a serious lack of intent to understand, perform and deliver. The only difference in the realm of sports is that, unlike most other sectors, it has an easy scapegoat; the players who take the flak while the administrators continue to make hey because for them the sun continues to shine.

The thread running through all the success stories was that of individual talent. From Hashim and Roshan to Jahangir and Jansher, none was thrown up by the system. The same is the story with any game you choose to look at.

I wonder how many in the country today would know or be able to recall the name Zia Mahmood. He was a star in his own right who took a largely unknown squad from Pakistan to take runners-up position at the 1981 Bermuda Bowl World Bridge Championships in New York, and then again at the Rosenblum Cup in Miami in 1986. During the decade, he led Pakistan to five consecutive Bridge Federation Asia Middle East Bridge (BEFAME) titles. In 1997, however, he was at the World Team Championships in Tunisia, representing not Pakistan, but the United States where he had dropped anchor just as Hashim Khan had done later in his life.

Aisamul Haq, who has been our lone and impressive representative on the international tennis circuit, is no exception on this count. The federation concerned can surely take no credit at all for what Aisam has been able to achieve on the circuit; –18 ATP titles and two appearances in the US Open finals.

More recently, we have had our heroes coming from the world of snooker and mountaineering. After the exploits of Muhammad Yousaf in snooker, the national flag has been kept triumphantly aloft by the likes of Mohammad Asif, Babar Masih, Mohammad Sajjad and Ahsan Ramzan.

On top of the world

Samina Baig in 2022 became the firs Pakistani woman to scale K2.
Samina Baig in 2022 became the firs Pakistani woman to scale K2.

In 2022 became the firs Pakistani woman to scale K2, followed within by hours by Naila Kiani
In 2022 became the firs Pakistani woman to scale K2, followed within by hours by Naila Kiani

In mountaineering, the ball was set rolling by Nazir Sabir, who became the first Pakistani to climb Mount Everest in the year 2000. More recently Muhammad Ali Sadpara captured the attention of the whole nation. Shehroze Kashif and Sirbaz Khan have done their own wonders, and so have Samina Khayal Baig and Naila Kiani.

At the 2020 Olympics, weightlifter Talha Talib and javelin-thrower Arshad Nadeem came close to putting Pakistan on the medals table. Though they could not in the end, their performance was remarkable because it had no official backing. These are all tales of individual enterprise and brilliance that came to fore despite the system; not because of it.

There has never been any concrete effort to have a system that may harness the natural talent. Even the highest offices in the land poke their mighty nose in the affairs of various federations and associations, but all that is done for the sake of accommodating the blue-eyed. Beyond that, there is little concern for anything else. The net result is that instead of producing giants, the federations are churning out pygmies and using them as scapegoats to continue enjoying the goodies themselves.

Had the decline been confined to one area, we could have called it bad performance. Had it been so bad in a few games, we could have called it a coincidence. But the scale of the decline is no coincidence. The malaise definitely runs much deeper and wider. And it is the same malady that plagues us as a nation. There are ways to stop the rot, but if we don’t do it now, Pakistan sports may well suffer an implosion. And what a sad day it will be.

Let us all do what we can individually and collectively do to avert such a grave possibility. Let’s do it for the sake of our coming generations. Let them feel the pride that we did in our better days.

The writer is a former captain, coach and manager of the national hockey team who became a sports columnist after retirement.

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