PAKISTAN HOCKEY NEEDS URGENT REVIVAL AFTER HITTING ITS NADIR

KHALID BUTT, Bureau Chief, Lahore
Dec 18 - 24, 2006

A number of former Pakistani Olympians have predictably reacted on the national team performance in Doha Asian Games. They all felt sad and saw it a national let down which calls for urgent remedy. The general feeling is that the present management is simply out of depth to cope with the crisis at hand and several heads must roll to apportion blame, starting from the very top.

Those who have expressed their anguish include former Olympians Samiullah, Mudassar, Hassan Sardar, Islahuddin, Muneer Dar and Zakauddin. However, it appeared mysterious that two of the hockey icons, veterans of four Olympic Games each, namely Brig, Hameedi and Brig. Atif, have so far maintained complete radio silence over this matter. The most remarkable and thought-provoking comment has come from Zakauddin.

In his lengthy remarks he recorded "I am neither shocked nor disappointed, for the way we have treated the game, I had this gut feeling that hitting this nadir was just round the corner. I am sad not at this particular capitulation, but how deep into the abyss have we fallen. It is not as if we have never been defeated before. Though such occasions really used to be few and far between in our glory days, occasionally we used to lose to unheralded teams as well.

"Some times, again not so often, our best teams came a cropper in a crucial title match. But never had we lacked the resources and the resilience to bounce back. Coming back hard at all our opponents and stunning them with our magical wizardry was a thing of beauty and class that all admired with awe and wonder. So woefully lacking that ability now is what really hurts. Looking at this Pakistan team, and how low it has been laid, I indeed want to cry. Once our whipping boys, Malaysia now hold us to a draw almost at will and occasionally beat us too. At Doha in the opening match, Malaysia held us to a draw. Our next halfway decent opponent in the league was Japan. Whether we deliberately played out a draw to sink Malaysia or not, this was the first time that Japan had managed a stalemate against us.

"There was more to come. China may have been good, even great, at a thousand things but it had never ever beaten us at hockey. At Doha in the semi-final, they had the better of us by 2-1 in a game that went into extra time, by a golden goal. That means that we failed to win all three games in which we were expecting some competitive level, though far below our world ranking of five. That has put us out of reckoning for a serious Asiad medal, something that we once took for granted, with our must-win game for bronze our last hope to eke out a place for us in the Olympic Games.

"One bad game could have been explained away with an off-colour day, not three. This means that we have consistently been poor on the field. The moral of the oft-repeated story is that you cannot rest on your past laurels, for your opponents play the eleven on the field and not the reputation of your team. Nowhere is this axiom more reflected than the post-match assertion of China's South Korean coach, Kim Sang Ryul: No one is very strong or very weak, everyone has a chance.

"When you are working with that premise, you make minnows fight and occasionally conquer. Ryul was here at Lahore when we were winning the Champions Trophy in 1994 after a 14-year gap, though his team hadn't even qualified. He is a thinking and hardworking coach who has already slowly built Korea into a force, the best under him being the silver behind Holland at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. And now he has set out to do the same for a nation determined to rise in every sphere, China.

"Most of all what Ryul (by the way, he is not one of those FIH certified coaches - you don't need a scrap of paper from the FIH to be good) has shown us is that serious coaching ultimately delivers. But that is something that we should have already known. Yet we have here Shahnaz Sheikh, whose coaching credentials must be good, but who has split loyalties between his employers and Pakistan hockey. What is that age-old saying, the man who has a leg apiece in two boats is likely to sink? In this case, Pakistan hockey has well and truly sunk.

"I recently read an Urdu verse. Roughly translated, it says if you are among the living, think and dream. That is exactly what Pakistan hockey - in a state of total collapse these days - needs to do to revive its fortunes. And while it is at it, the powers-that-be should not fob us with such phrases as grassroots development and pots of gold and honey 10 years from now. We have had enough of it. There is today to be dealt with, and if the PHF is serious about it, to borrow an expression that late Farooq Mazhar often used, we must put our best foot forward with the intent to deliver now," Zakauddin concluded on a philosophical note.