It has been downhill for Pakistan hockey for the best part of the last two decades. From being the undisputed world number one team back in the seventies and eighties, Pakistan have slumped and are today out of even the elite top-ten club. From being world champions back in 1994, Pakistan have been reduced to the role of also-rans in international tournaments. They didn’t even qualify for the last World Cup held in the Netherlands in 2014.
Pakistan’s downfall in hockey was made worse because of the security situation in the country that has kept international teams away from Pakistan. Post 2009 when the Sri Lankan cricketers were ambushed by terrorists in Lahore, no international hockey team visited Pakistan, a country which was once the hub of international activities. Many major tournaments including World Cups and multiple editions of the Champions Trophy were held in Pakistan.
Last Friday brought a ray hope in the shape of a star-studded World XI that played an exhibition match against the Pakistan Junior team at Karachi’s iconic Abdul Sattar Edhi Stadium. The international stars thrashed the local youngsters 5-1 in a match that failed to attract a big crowd but even then it was a big leap forward for Pakistan hockey. The World XI, which includes players from Holland, Germany, Spain and Argentina, will play another game in Lahore on Sunday (today) before leaving the country.
The brief two-match series has been described as a ‘game changer’ by Brig Khalid Sajjad Khokhar, President Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF), and not without reason. It has once again made hockey relevant in Pakistan and that’s a big step. The onus is now on the PHF to capitalise on it. The federation shouldn’t allow the World XI visit to become just a one-off event. It should make sure that international teams continue visiting the country at regular intervals. To put Pakistan hockey back on track it’s important that we are visited by leading teams like Australia, Holland, Germany, Spain and England. It’s easier said than done. Pakistan’s security situation remains volatile and to convince international teams to visit the country will remain a tough task. But nobody said that reviving Pakistan hockey is going to be an easy mission. Brig Khokhar and his team which includes the legendary Shahbaz Ahmed (Secretary PHF) should be well aware of the fact that such is the state of Pakistan hockey at the moment that it will take years of hard work to put it back in proper shape. But it’s a goal that has to be achieved. By bringing international action to Pakistan, the PHF has taken a very important step.
Perhaps an even more important task than resuming international activities in Pakistan is to improve the standard of the game in the country. The fact that we lag far behind the leading teams was highlighted in the exhibition match in Karachi that pitted the World XI against Pakistan’s top junior players. The home team failed to capitalise on a bright start and in the event was hammered 5-1. It’s true that you can’t read too much into the outcome of one such game but in recent years Pakistani teams, both senior and junior, have performed more or less like the colts did in Karachi on Friday night. The problem with Pakistan hockey is that the pool of players has shrunk considerably over the years. One former Olympian, who has served as a coach in recent times, told me that there aren’t more than 35-40 players in the entire country. That’s the player pool we have from which Pakistan has to make its senior and junior teams. That pool is even smaller than what is available to teams like Japan, who recently beat Pakistan twice in a four-nation tournament in Australia.
The reason behind the small player pool is that hockey isn’t a popular sport in Pakistan any more. Back in the seventies when Pakistan was winning one international title after another, hockey had a huge following perhaps an even bigger fan base than cricket. But that was a long time back. Today, cricket is the only sport with a mass following in Pakistan. Then there are other sports like football, which continue to attract spectators, but not hockey. Even snooker has a bigger following than a sport that is still the national game of Pakistan.
The PHF will have to make hockey attractive again. Back in the olden days, a good hockey player had a secure future. He will get a good job either at PIA, Customs or in one of the leading banks. Today, our players have no such luxury. Some of our players do manage to make a decent living by playing in the various professional leagues abroad but that’s no solution either. Those players often miss national duty because of their league commitments and a country like Pakistan, with its depleted player pool, cannot afford it. The PHF should initiate its own league on the pattern of cricket’s PSL. The federation has been planning to launch such a league but so far it hasn’t succeeded. It is time that the federation throws its weight behind the project and launch a full-fledged league that can provide our players an opportunity to not only earn money but also make their presence felt. The league should be packaged well because it will be a good platform to make hockey attractive again.
The PHF should also invest more on the coaching and training of players. It changes the team management every now and then but that is unlikely to make things better. Only a development plan that is carefully devised and is implemented on a long-term basis can help raise the standard of our players. The PHF should bring in foreign experts because one of the reasons why our players lag behind other teams is because hockey as a sport has evolved. Our coaches continue to use obsolete methods to train their teams and unsurprisingly they fail to produce desired results.
Meanwhile, one hopes that tonight’s game will turn out to be a success. Friday’s match in Karachi didn’t attract a big crowd and that was certainly a dampener. Hockey needs support from all quarters, especially the fans. They should turn up in big numbers and maybe their presence will inspire our young team to do better.