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When we were champions

March 02, 2010

"Hassan Sardar to Kalimullah, Kalimullah takes the ball into the D, he dodges one, two players, he shoots. Kalimullah has just scored a goal for Pakistan in the Olympics" This is an example of some of the voices that are burnt into my memory. Voices from a time when there was one channel on television, and the two most important events for Pakistani viewers were the nine o’ clock khabarnama or any hockey match that Pakistan team played.

Many people wonder why hockey is Pakistan's national sport given that cricket seems to dominate the nation’s thoughts. But those who had the privilege to see the Pakistan team in action against West Germany during the 1984 Olympics understand why this is the case.

Back then, we were not just the winners of an Olympic gold medal, we also created history. In that game, the Pakistan side introduced a new tactic – the dribble – to the art of hockey playing.

This was not surprising given Pakistan’s consistent performance in the sport. After winning the Olympic gold in 1960, Pakistan made it to the finals in 1964, 1968 (when they took home another gold medal), and 1972.

Pakistan was to field hockey what Brazil is to football. Our players moved the ball at the end of their sticks at such a pace that they would often beat three or four defenders to strike at the opponent’s goal. The players’ speed was unmatched, earning them nicknames such as The Flying Horse. (Samiullah, who was given that moniker, was one of our dribbling greats.)

Sunday’s hockey match against India was disappointing to watch, not because we lost, but because it was quite obvious that Pakistan has abandoned its famed dribbling skills and switched to the conventional long pass, penalty corner strategy that has been put to efficient use by European teams in the last decade. It is understandable that our hockey play has evolved to incorporate these strategies because the playing surface has changed to AstroTurf. Still, it was sad to see that we have forgotten why we were once champions.

Today, we boast a forward such as Rehan Butt, but rather than play on the offensive, we are focusing on getting penalty corners and handing the ball over to Sohail Abbas. Not that I have anything against Abbas: he is fantastic in his own right and is the only man to score above 300 goals in hockey. But penalty corners, of which, on Sunday, he could convert only one out of six, suggest that he’s not the right man to set a field on fire.

Hockey will always be as much a mental and morale-driven game as it is a physical one, and the sight of a couple of Pakistani players blazing down the field dribbling through an opponent’s defences is one that is bound to intimidate the competition.

We need to get back to our basics if we want to reach the later stages of this world cup. Rather than appropriate a robotic, European style of play, we should embrace our natural game. Imitation may be a great form of flattery, but why imitate when one possesses such talent? Its time we abandon adaptation and let improvisation flow.

Faisal Kapadia is a Karachi-based entrepreneur and writer. He blogs at Deadpan Thoughts.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.