Hockey World Cup: Have we as a country collectively failed our national sport?

Published: November 26, 2018
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Until a week ago, there was once again immense uncertainty surrounding Pakistan’s participation in the World Cup. PHOTO: REUTERS/FILE

Like the case for most sports in the country barring cricket, the last 10 years have been a lost decade for Pakistan hockey as well. During this period, the team’s performance witnessed a severe decline not seen since Pakistan first started playing hockey in 1948.

In 2014, Pakistan failed to qualify for the hockey World Cup for the first time, followed by a failure to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games held in Rio de Janeiro. The team is currently ranked 13 in the world, which is marginally better than when it slipped to 14th last year. Once a powerhouse of world hockey, the team with the most World Cup titles to its name, Pakistan can no longer compete with the top teams in the world. It’s sad to see how the mighty have fallen.

As a patriot and a sports enthusiast, it pains me to see the current doldrums Pakistan hockey is in. The domestic infrastructure is in shambles – the head coach resigned from his position a few months prior to the World Cup after a disappointing season, and a month later we witnessed a fall out between head coach Hasan Sardar and his assistant Mohammad Saqlain, due to which the latter left midway into the Asian Champions Trophy.

The team at work. Photo: Express

National game or neglected sport?

Until a week ago, there was once again immense uncertainty surrounding Pakistan’s participation in the World Cup. This time, not due to trouble acquiring visas from India, but because the department did not have the funds to send the team to the tournament.

According to a letter written by Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) Secretary Shahbaz Ahmad, Rs82 million were required to fund the team’s campaign at the 2018 World Cup, which the PHF didn’t have. They reportedly approached the government a number of times for a grant, but didn’t get a response. In a last ditch effort to secure Pakistan’s participation, the PHF approached Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) Chairman Ehsan Mani and requested a loan to cover their expenses. However, their request was denied, as the PHF had not yet paid back a previous loan taken from the PCB in the early 2000s.

At the end, it was a grant by the Sindh government that rescued the PHF, allowing for the team to make it to the World Cup.

The question we need to ask as a nation is why our national sport has been neglected and not promoted as much as we do cricket? Why has the PHF failed to market Pakistan hockey as a brand? Why aren’t hockey tournaments and important hockey developments given the same media coverage as cricket? And most importantly, have we as a country collectively failed our national game?

Pakistan players celebrate their 2-2 draw after the men’s field hockey match between India and Pakistan at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Photo: AFP

Glimmer of hope

Despite the gloomy outlook of the current state of affairs, the Pakistan hockey team showed a glimmer of their previous self when they reached the final of the Asian Champions Trophy last month, and were eventually crowned joint winners alongside India as a result of a rain washout. Although the World Cup will pose a completely different level of challenge for the team, there will always be that tiny chance for the team to pull out a miraculous performance and finish among the top five, if not the top three. We’ve seen Pakistan turn things around in cricket to a fair extent in the last year or two, and the same can be expected from our hockey team, for it is nothing if not resilient.

Pakistan’s Ajaz Ahmad (3L) and Muhammad Atiq (2R) celebrate after score a goal against Malaysia during the men’s hockey pool B match in Jakarta on August 26, 2018. Photo: AFP

The road map

For things to turn around, the PHF needs to take certain steps for the future.

Firstly, the Pakistan Hockey League (PHL) – the idea for which has been floating around for a long time but hasn’t actually materialised as yet – will be kicking off in February, as announced. Injecting money in a sport always encourages current players and also attracts youngsters to take up the sport. We have seen how beneficial the Pakistan Super League (PSL) has been in promoting Pakistan cricket and finding young talent. The PHL has the potential to do the same for our hockey league.

Secondly, the PHF should form a committee to delve into the reasons for the decline in hockey standards and to outline a road map for the future. We saw the PCB form a committee to find out similar answers and chalk out a long term plan for Pakistan cricket, and the same is required for Pakistan hockey.

Lastly, the sport needs to be encouraged at the grassroots level i.e. at schools and colleges. The concept of interschool hockey tournaments is almost non-existent at the moment. Until and unless such programs are put in place, children will always prefer cricket and football over hockey. A lot of this is also dependent upon having abundant hockey fields across Pakistan, which are sadly missing at the moment. This is where the PHF and the government need to work together.

Pakistan’s Irfan Mahmood (L) and Kazakhstan’s Yermek Tashkeyev (R) compete for the ball at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on August 24, 2018. Photo: AFP

Current assignment: The hockey World Cup

Two years ago, our squad did not get Indian visas to take part in the Junior World Cup in Lucknow, despite the team qualifying for the event, and were ultimately replaced by Malaysia. Much to everyone’s relief, this time around India has granted visas to all players.

The PHF has now announced the squad for the event and it looks like a fairly balanced one. Penalty corner specialist Mubashar Ali is in good shape, and one hopes the team secures enough penalty corners for him to weave his magic. Muhammad Rizwan Senior will continue leading the side, while Ammad Shakeel Butt will continue as his deputy. The experienced Rashid Mahmood’s return to the side will also be a boost for the team.

One major weak spot I’ve noticed in our team over the past few years has been their defence. On more occasions than I can count, our team has taken an early lead, only to lose it to some defensive lapses as the game proceeds. One hopes the new coach Tauqir Dar has worked on this area during training and has prepared the team for a better and stronger defence this time around.

The 2018 World Cup is set to begin on November 28th in Bhubaneswar, India. We wish our team the very best, and hope this event will turn out to be a stepping stone in the long journey to reclaim our lost glory.

Sheeraz Faseeh

Sheeraz Faseeh

The author is a marketeer by passion and profession, and is currently working as the Marketing Manager at a leading Consumer Appliances Company. He tweets @Sheeraz84 (twitter.com/Sheeraz84)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.