Seldom has Pakistan hockey benefitted from good leadership since the golden reign of the legendary Nur Khan. Over the years, a number of men — ranging from former Olympians and military officials, to politicians and corporate bigwigs — have called the shots in Pakistan hockey. But as Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) presidents, they were unable to do much to stop the decline of our country’s national sport.
So will Brigadier Khalid Sajjad Khokhar prove to be any different?
Khokhar has recently replaced former Olympian Akkhtar Rasool as the PHF chief. His appointment was made possible by the intervention of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who also happens to be the patron-in-chief of the PHF. While some have hailed Khokhar’s arrival on the national hockey scene, others have criticised it by suggesting that he has been handpicked by the premier because Khokhar is a relative of a powerful minister in Sharif’s cabinet.
But such divisive views were always expected. The Pakistan hockey fraternity has over the years been reduced into a highly fragmented lot because of constant infighting among the various stake-holders.
As a result, Pakistan hockey has become mired in defeat and disappointment. Things have gone from bad to worse in recent times with the national team even failing to qualify for World Cup 2014 and next year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
So can Khokhar and Co bring about a turnaround in the fortunes of Pakistan hockey?
Pakistan’s new hockey chief is of the view that only a long term, mammoth campaign can revive Pakistan hockey and believes that he and his team are up to the task.
“First of all we will have to admit that our hockey is nowhere at the moment,” he told ‘The News on Sunday’ in an interview.
“And when I say nowhere I’m not just talking about our standing at the international level. I’m primarily talking about hockey’s presence in our own country,” he says.
“Hockey has been eliminated from the grassroots level in our country. Apart from a few pockets here and there you won’t see any youngsters playing hockey in the grounds, parks or streets like they used to do in the past,” adds Khokhar, who captained Pakistan Army’s hockey team and almost made it to the national side back in his youth.
“In those days our education minister who also held the portfolio of sports would make sure that schools and colleges all over the country will form their hockey teams and will play regularly,” he reminisces.
“But today there is no emphasis on holding sports at the school and college level. I don’t think that we can achieve much in hockey if this situation doesn’t change. We will have to make sure that as many educational institutions as possible are made active in hockey. With the support of the government, Pakistan Hockey Federation will go all out to launch a campaign to make sure that we revive our hockey at the grassroots level.
“This cannot be one off. I mean sport has to be a continuous process which is why we will come out with a feasible and lasting plan for the revival of our hockey at the school and college level,” he says.
Khokhar believes that PHF also needs to focus on uplifting the game at the local level.
“Many of our districts claim that they are running hockey at grassroots levels. But even if they are trying to do that we are not getting any worthwhile results.
“The problem with hockey at the districts level is that it’s almost unmanageable. There are too many districts and for PHF, which is already spreading thin, it is almost impossible to manage things.
“We have to divide provinces into regions. They will be more manageable. We will be able to facilitate them and they will in return help us in raising our pool of players.”
Khokhar believes that the Pakistan hockey fraternity should show more faith in nurseries like Gojra in Punjab and Hanif Khan’s academy in Karachi.
“Our biggest flaw is that over the years we have ignored nurseries like Gojra. We have under-estimated people like Hanif Khan who gives time in Karachi and helps raise good hockey players.
“The only problem with players coming out of such academies is insufficient education and lack of grooming. We at the PHF need to devise ways and means to polish the young players who are produced by such nurseries.
“In the past PHF established various academies but the problem was lack of quality. We cannot run after quantity at the expense of quality.”
Khokhar believes that former Olympians like Hanif Khan and Islahuddin Siddiqui can play a vital role in reviving the fortunes of Pakistan hockey.
“We have to make hockey visible in Pakistan,” he says. “That’s our greatest goal and I believe that all our former stalwarts can make a great contribution in achieving that target.
“I know all of them want to do something for the betterment of Pakistan hockey which is why I see them as PHF’s greatest strength.
“They can start by contributing in their own areas and the PHF will support them as much as possible. They can give us ideas, advise and also help us in sniffing out young blood.”
Khokhar is planning to form a think-tank, which would primarily include former Olympians. He also wants to take steps to make PHF’s executive board more effective.
Within the PHF, Khokhar’s right-man will be the legendary Shahbaz Ahmed, the former Pakistan captain who was recently installed as PHF’s secretary.
“Shahbaz has great potential to be a competent secretary. He can make great contribution towards the promotion of Pakistan hockey both at home and abroad. Internationally, we can utilise him a lot because he enjoys a great rapport in the world of hockey.
“We are both on the same wavelength. It has to be team work. We will have to involve all stake-holders to make sure that hockey is back on track. We know that on our way to doing all those things we will have to face criticism. I do pray that the criticism is positive and constructive because that will help us in achieving our goals.”
One regarded among the superpowers in the hockey world, Pakistan’s status at international level has taken a serious hit. Pakistan gave international hockey the World Cup and the Champions Trophy. But today, the country is lagging behind in every aspect of the game.
“It is not just in hockey that we have experienced a major downfall,” says Khokhar, who has served as Pakistan hockey team’s manager in the past.
“Overall, our reputation in the world of sports has gone down. I believe that is our own fault. We have had too many vested interest elements in our sports. They never looked beyond their own agendas and today we are suffering the consequences.
“We will have to sit down and take a long, hard look at what went wrong. We will reach out to the world hockey family and let them know that Pakistan is still alive and kicking and can still contribute greatly towards the promotion of the sport at the international level.”
In the past, PHF has made and discarded plans to launch a full-fledged professional hockey league. It did take off several years ago under the command of Tariq Kirmani, when he was PHF president. But the project crashed soon afterwards.
Khokhar is all for reviving it.
“This is an immediate aspect which we need to look into. We have to launch our international league within the next two years. Our first priority will be to hold it at home but we will keep our options open” he says.
The PHF president wants to make all out efforts to ensure resumption of international matches in Pakistan.
“Though some things (security issues) are beyond our control, the PHF will make best possible efforts to hold international matches in Pakistan in the near future.”
He also believes that revival of bilateral hockey ties with India will boost the sport in the two countries.
“It will be great for hockey in Pakistan and India if the two countries resume playing hockey matches on a home-and-away basis. In fact, I believe that such matches will provide a big boost to Asian hockey.
“But once again, that will only happen if the relations between the two countries improve. If there is a thaw then we will certainly try to line up matches with India.”
Khokhar believes that over the years, Pakistan hockey chiefs have ignored the women’s game.
“We haven’t worked on women’s hockey in the past. But I’m thinking of making covered indoor grounds for seven-a-side hockey where our ladies can play. Such facilities can also be utilised by our men’s teams.”
Though Khokhar’s focus is on developing hockey at the grassroots level, he won’t be ignoring the seniors either.
“At the senior level, we are out of the World Cup and Olympics. But all is not lost. We will make a comprehensive plan to provide a boost to our national team.
“The first step we plan to take is upgrade our national senior championship and turn it into a major sporting event of our country. We have to make it high-profile.”
One of the reasons behind hockey’s slump in Pakistan is that the PHF is almost always looking towards the government for financial support.
“This will have to change. We will have to become self-reliant. It will be tough but I think Pakistan hockey has great potential. We will soon form a marketing team which will package Pakistan hockey into sellable product.”
But Khokhar knows that it is easier said than done.
Such has been the dismal state of Pakistan hockey that a kid who wants to try out this sport will have trouble even in buying a hockey stick, because they aren’t easily available anymore.
“The thing is that we will have to achieve international titles to lift the image of Pakistan hockey. To achieve results we will have to form a world-class team and for that we will need a broader pool of players. To do that we will need more and more kids to take up hockey.
“It sounds tough and I know it is. But somehow we will have to achieve it. We will begin with baby steps and I believe that local associations will have to play a vital role. They will have to provide us with fresh blood and also the former Olympians and their academies.
“To provide a boost at the junior level we will soon launch a development programme and will go to schools all over the country with equipment and training expertise.
“We will do all that is possible and involve each and every person who can contribute towards the betterment of Pakistan hockey. We believe that this is a national service and hopefully with a team effort we will succeed.”