Pakistan hockey: Rise and demise | G Sports with Waheed Khan 15th May 2019

Can one imagine a modern-day Football World Cup in which there is no Brazil, Argentina or Germany? It’s almost unthinkable, in fact absurd.

The same way it once was to imagine a Hockey World Cup without Pakistan. And yet, last year this is exactly what happened. What’s more, this year the Pakistan hockey side even failed to qualify for the next Summer Olympics!

Pakistan hockey’s slump is not quite as dramatic or sudden as it now seems to be. It’s been a slow and painful decline that began when Pakistan not only lost the World Cup title in the 1986 World Cup in England, but also came 11th in the 12-team-event.

Yet, it managed to bounce back a bit in the 1990s but by then the game was already vanishing from schools and colleges and it failed to get the kind of media and corporate attention that cricket had begun to attract.

So now if only a few school kids were playing hockey, from where did one expect new talent to emerge? It didn’t.

Whatever little that did was either not suited to quickly adopt the rapidly changing ways and pace of the game; or wasn’t given the kind of incentives to keep it interested in the game as a profession and not just a low-paying hobby or even national duty.

Pakistan hockey’s slow fall now seems complete. The game could just fade away (and it has), but the problem is, it is still officially Pakistan’s national sport.

Early this year the popular military chief, General Raheel Sharif, vowed to help revive the game, and this month when Pakistan failed to qualify for the Summer Olympics, the Prime Minister ordered an inquiry into the team’s latest debacle.

Inquiries are only bound to discover what most hockey fans already are well aware of i.e. ever since the early 1990s, Pakistan’s national sport has not been given the kind of attention, resources and respect by those who matter.

And one of the most intriguing reasons behind this may also be about how cricket instead of hockey became the sport for many a ruler to exploit its triumphs as a way to express the success of his or her government.

This is an important consideration because the rise of Pakistan hockey too, had its roots in how this sport was elevated by various governments in the past to express and manifest these governments’ robust and winning ways.

But the exercise was not always so cynical. For example, when a highly inexperienced and under-resourced Pakistan hockey side managed to make its way into the hockey finals of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, it was hailed at home for mirroring the fighting spirit and determination of a struggling new nation that had emerged on the map just 9 years ago.

Contrary to popular belief, hockey was not always the country’s national sport. Actually till the late 1950s, no sport was. In fact when the Pakistan cricket team under its first Test captain, AH Kardar, was producing impressive results, some even suggested that cricket be named as Pakistan’s national sport.

But three occurrences jettisoned not only the widespread popularity of hockey in the country, but also make the state finally declare it to be Pakistan’s national sport.

Kardar’s retirement in 1958 saw the fortunes of the national cricket side plummet (across the 1960s). This gave hockey space to grow more rapidly than cricket.
Also, the arrival of the military regime of Field Martial Ayub Khan in 1958 helped the game because at the time sports such as hockey and football were encouraged more in the Pakistan armed forces than cricket. In fact, Ayub is said to have quite a disliking for cricket.

Lastly, the main catalyst in this respect was the way the Pakistan side stormed into the hockey finals of the 1960 Rome Olympics and defeated India to win its first ever Olympic hockey title.

Ayub was firmly at the helm of power and much of Pakistan was basking in the feel-good environment that the regime was radiating at the time. Ayub took the victory and expressed it as a sign of Pakistan’s progress and growth as a society and polity (due to the policies of his regime).

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