Olympian Mohammad Akhlaq who recently passed away at the CMH Lahore remained associated with hockey throughout his life.
Born in Sheikhupura, a town rich with hockey tradition having produced quite a few Olympic gold medalists and World Cup winners, Akhlaq took to hockey in his childhood. A full back, right from early playing days, he gained selection for the Pakistan under-18 team for the European tour. He had to wait for the full national colours for a while and made his senior debut for Pakistan in the Perth test match against Australia in 1990. From then onwards, he was a permanent fixture in the Pakistan team till 1993. During this period, Akhlaq appeared in four Champions Trophy tournaments, winning a silver (1991) and a bronze (1992). His finest achievement as a player obviously came in the 1992 Olympics, where Pakistan won the bronze — the country’s last Olympic medal.
He was first dropped from the national squad in 1993. Though later named in the national camp twice, he never reported. He continued playing for his department, National Bank, in the domestic circuit till 1999. In the meantime, he had started training young boys in his hometown, Sheikhupura. Within a few years, two of his pupils, brothers Imran and Irfan Yousaf, had won selection for the national team; both appeared at the 2000 Olympics.
in 2004 his coaching skills got recognition for the first time. The PHF asked Akhlaq to coach the Pakistan team in the Junior Asia Cup that year. They finished second thus gaining qualification for the 2005 junior World Cup. Pakistan had failed to qualify for the previous edition. That year, Abahani, one of the elite Bangladeshi clubs, approached him for coaching. The club had a couple of Indian stars in Dhanraj Pillay and Sabu Virkay but their arch rivals Mohammadan Sporting had a stronger lineup including legendary Shahbaz, the great right in Tahir Zaman, that cracker of a centre forward Kamran Ashraf (scorer of Pakistan’s eight out of 12 goals in their victorious campaign at the 1994 World Cup).
Under Akhlaq’s tutelage, Abahani club was able to win the league after four years. Later that year, he had a one-month coaching stint with Slough, a leading English hockey club.
Akhlaq was employed in the National Bank’s sports department. The bank has been involved in a lot of sports activities. Apart from the sports teams, the bank also employs a number of sportspersons of individual disciplines. Akhlaq played his part in the organisation of tournaments of various sports. But hockey was his first love. He remained the head coach of National Bank’s junior hockey squad for several years, guiding them to the final of the national junior championships many a time. Quite a few players from the bank’s junior team graduated to the Pakistan juniors and even the national senior side.
Apart from courses carried out by the PHF, Akhlaq also attended six FIH coaching courses conducted by some very distinguished names including Maurits Hendriks, Roelant Oltmans and Tayyab Ikram.
As a coach, he achieved a unique distinction in Pakistan hockey. In 2008, under his coaching, Pakistan women under-18 team defeated Thailand 2-0 in the Asia Cup. It was the first ever victory for the Pakistan women hockey team at an international tournament at any level. In addition, he also served as the coach of Pakistan’s national senior women team.
He was the manager of the Pakistan ‘A’ team which won the gold medal at the 2010 SAF games in Dhaka. There, the Pakistan team defeated India in a high-octane encounter, having lost the league match against them. Then he was the coach of the Pakistan ‘A’ on the tour of China later the same year.
He also acted as the ‘coordinator of PHF academies’ in 2010. The Dutch consultant Wauters Tazelaar had been hired by the PHF for formulating a coaching programme for the newly established hockey academies throughout Pakistan. Akhlaq worked with Tazelaar for three months when the latter was in Pakistan. Thereafter, he worked independently, travelling across the length and breadth of the country to visit each academy.
Akhlaq also carried out other important tasks at hockey events, national and international. He acted as the tournament director at national senior and junior championships. In 2008, he was FIH’s tournament director at the 4-nation tournaments for both men and women in Ireland.
In 2011, FIH began assigning Akhlaq tasks to develop hockey in countries where hockey was in nascent stages or very slow in development. He first worked in Seychelles in 2011-12 on an IOC-funded project.
In 2013, the FIH sent him to Myanmar. There, the Myanmar Hockey Federation gave him the target to win bronze at the South East Asian Games staged in the country’s new capital Naypyidaw. And he achieved that. It was the country’s first hockey medal at any international event. They lost to Singapore 0-1 with the goal conceded in the last minute. Otherwise, Myanmar would have been playing the final against Malaysia. It is pertinent to note that he had a pool of only 25 players at his disposal. Akhlaq’s efforts were appreciated by the Asian Hockey Federation as well.
Later, he also worked with the Sri Lanka Hockey Federation for more than a year. On the wishes of the Myanmar Hockey Federation, he was to return to Myanmar in a few weeks’ time but for his untimely death.
Nurturing the nursery in his own country gave him the greatest pleasure and satisfaction. He was the head coach with Dar Hockey Academy. He once told the scribe, “It gives me a great sense of achievement as well as pride to see so many of the boys who we took under the wings of the academy in their early teens representing various age group as well as Pakistan’s national teams. Dar academy colts toured Europe in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and we performed very well each time. The finest compliment I received by the European spectators was: “Is this Pakistan’s national junior side?”
Akhlaq lived and breathed hockey.