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Let the sticks fly again

December 22, 2011

As we trudged up the road towards the entrance of Hockey Club of Pakistan (HCP) Stadium for the Pakistan-China match on Wednesday, my colleague Nadir asked me if I was sure there was a match being played that day. His question wasn’t too surprising, given the lack of noise from inside the stadium and the road around the stadium wore a deserted look.

After assuring him that we were at the right venue at the right time, I told him to curb his expectations of a crowd similar to that of a cricket match – it just wasn’t the same for hockey anymore even though an international team was playing in Pakistan after seven years.

At the entrance, the police frisked Nadir, Zeresh and me and checked our bags. There were finally signs that there was some activity going on inside as the commentary and the noise from the crowd became audible. However, the first sight that greeted me was the starkness of the empty stands, which provided the background to the on-field action. Things were slightly better on the other side, where a handful of fans – albeit full of enthusiasm – occupied the stands.

For anyone who has been to the National Stadium Karachi (NSK), even for a domestic match, the attendance at the HCPS would have come as a shock. Given that hockey is our national game, which has brought glorious wins for the country in the past decades, the empty stands with random sprinkling of security officials, was a sad spectacle. This, despite a free entrance and central location of the venue, shows how far our national game has fallen.

The crowd which was present there, however, was a lively one. There was, quite aptly, good support for both teams participating in this first match of the “Friendship Series.” The fans seemed hopeful of the future of international sports in Pakistan, and said that the visit of the Chinese team will encourage other international teams to visit Pakistan. Realising the importance of this series, people were grateful to the Chinese for visiting Pakistan when other foreign teams have shown reluctance in playing here.

The action itself was quite exciting, as Pakistan scored two quick goals to send a wave of excitement among the crowd. Children waved flags of China and Pakistan, clapping and shouting slogans of encouragement but even then the crowd did not match up to the normally frenzied atmosphere at a cricket match. While it may be unfair to compare the two games, hockey is a much faster paced game than cricket and the end-to-end action, the zipping moves and high-flying sticks should reflect on the noise in the stands.

Perhaps the last-minute arrangements from the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) and a general lack of interest in the game are to be blamed. The PHF, in particular, should have played a better role in promoting the match. For a foreign team to play a series in Pakistan after a long gap was a landmark event. However, there was little to no promotion for the series. Newspaper ads were missing, radio and internet promotions could not be found and the PHF failed to create hype among the masses.

The empty stands and the flat atmosphere were the only drawbacks of what was otherwise a great experience of watching a hockey match live for the first time. It was an exciting game, full of penalty corners and the two quick goals from Pakistan certainly livened up the atmosphere. But I couldn’t help drawing comparisons to cricket where the atmosphere more than makes up for the lack of pace on the pitch.

With the tour of the Chinese team, maybe security fears for other international teams have been allayed and Pakistan can hope to host more international teams in the near future. With a better atmosphere at stadiums, improved facilities and better promotion of the game, hockey stadiums in Pakistan have great potential of matching the madness of a cricket match, once again.

The writer is a Sports Producer at Dawn.com