Recently, I was asked by an avid Pakistan sports fan about the reasons behind the decline of the country in games like squash and hockey. Such queries, which were once quite frequent, have become few and far between. In a country that’s obsessed with cricket, the new generation of sports fans follow cricket and to a lesser extent football thanks to all the live coverage of the various professional leagues. There are a few tennis buffs here and there and some might even follow what’s happening in the world of basketball, but Pakistan is primarily a one-sport country.
For most millennials, names like Hashim, Jahangir, Jansher, Hamidi, Islah, Samiullah or Shahbaz are of little significance. It’s been a long time since a teenager or a twenty-something asked me about my views as to what happened to Pakistan’s supremacy in squash and hockey. It’s certainly unfortunate considering that it was squash that gave Pakistan an identity when it needed one. It was hockey that put Pakistan on the world sports map. Cricket has its share of laurels won by the likes of Imran Khan and other stalwarts but they pale in front of the world titles won by our squash and hockey legends. But we are a nation that doesn’t really care about the past. We have allowed squash and hockey to fade without doing much to save them. Today, no Pakistani squash player can even dream of winning major titles like the British Open or the World Open. That’s a stunning fall for a country which once provided seven to eight players to the world top-ten. Players like Jahangir and Jansher won major titles almost at will as they ran roughshod over their rivals. It was almost a similar story on the hockey fields where Pakistan were the best team for decades.
So what went wrong? That’s the question, isn’t it?
Well, everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
In squash, Pakistan’s supremacy began back in the fifties when the great Hashim Khan won the British Open. It was a fairytale story (which I will talk about in some other column) as Hashim came out of nowhere to win the most coveted title in the squash world and that too without much fuss. Despite the fact that he was in his forties, Hashim dominated international squash for several years before passing on the baton to his younger brother Azam. Things remained mostly in the family for decades as the Khans of Nawakilli ruled world squash right till the end of nineties when Jansher was king. But the man who won the most World Open titles than any other player turned out to be the last Pakistani to win a major squash crown. Since Jansher, Pakistan’s well of squash talent went dry. There were players like Amjad Khan and Shahid Zaman but they could never emulate their predecessors.
To trace the decline of Pakistan squash we have to go back to its rise. By keeping it in the family, Hashim ensured that Pakistan’s supremacy in squash would continue even after his exit but in the long run it became one of the major causes behind the country’s decline. Squash garnered a big following in Pakistan thanks to the exploits of the great Khans but when it comes to producing players, it was confined to the few courts in Peshawar. The game was played actively in other cities like Karachi, Lahore and Quetta but such was the stranglehold of the Khans of Nawakilli that very few players from outside their clan made it to the top. There were immensely talented players like Lahore’s Sohail Qaiser, who won the world junior title, but they could never graduate to the level of world champions. Such players almost always cried foul. They complained, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, that the Khan clan never allowed them to grow into world class players. “They just want to keep Pakistan squash in their families,” one player told me back in the nineties.
Having covered squash for many years, I did come to the conclusion that the Khans of Nawakilli never really wanted squash to become a national sport. For many of them squash was bread and butter more than a tool to earn glory for Pakistan. It’s quite natural but something should have been done about it. Sadly, nothing was. That’s because the people at the helm of Pakistan squash relied on the Khans of Nawakilli to win international laurels. For decades, Pakistan squash has been governed by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). The PAF provides the Pakistan Squash federation (PSF) with funds, infra-structure as well as its senior officials. The Air Chief by virtue of being the Air Chief is the President of the federation. A senior PAF official serves as Senior Vice President and another officer is the Secretary. There have been former PAF chiefs like Abbas Khattak and the late Mushaf Ali Mir, who made big contributions towards Pakistan squash but to a big extent, PAF has not been too successful. It has allowed Pakistan squash to touch rock bottom.
To be continued…