A pacy moustached centre forward by the name of Hassan Sardar dribbling with a hockey stick in between hapless defenders and at times just being in the right position at the perfect time for a cross helped on its way so effortlessly into the back of the net, is still fresh in my fading memory from our golden days of Hockey in the 80s. The excitement at winning Penalty corners when we knew we had more likelihood of scoring than not with Sohail Abbas; still the highest ever scorer in the history of the game, watching the pace and fluidity of the movement of arguably one of the best forwards of the game, the pencil thin Shahbaz, true to his name who helped Pakistan win our last World Cup in 1994 was indeed a delight to watch. Gone are the days when Hockey was followed by enthusiastic schoolchildren, still coming a close second to Cricket in popularity and at times at par in many areas, when I was growing up. An ardent sports fan from an early age, I followed most of the sports closely, but as everywhere in our household Cricket reigned supreme, being the more artistic and charismatic one amongst the two, in which Pakistan used to excel in those days. Squash being another one, not being a team sports and with hardly any facilities, just played in a cross section of the society and hence its sad fate later on, when the two Khans retired from the game, after dominating it for decades. Hockey was still very popular in early 80s when I was growing up, though I never played it on a frequent basis, most of my friends and schoolmates naturally preferring Cricket, being a Professional sports, had more coverage in media and was a highly paid one too. Most of the public in my times, unless diehard Hockey fans would consider famous cricketers like Imran, Javed, Zaheer, Wasim, Waqar or Inzi as their heroes rather than the likes of Hassan Sardar, Kaleemullah, Shahid Ali Khan, Samiullah, Hanif Khan, Mansur, Wasim Feroze and later Shahbaz.
It doesn’t seem too distant when we look back dominating the stage of World Hockey and Pakistan was consistently in the top 3-4 amongst the Hockey playing fraternity with the likes of Germany, Australia and Netherlands, consistently achieving good results. The memory of us winning World Cups, Olympic Titles, Champions Trophies, Asian titles and entertaining at the same time, playing quality Hockey, is as refreshing as ever. Four World Cup Titles, Three Olympic Golds and Three Champions Trophies is a record to be proud of for any country. Incidentally Pakistan alongwith Germany, Australia and Netherlands are the only four teams to have won the elite Champions Trophy since its inception in 1978. We had been Runners up on no less than 8 occasions as well as the bronze medallists 7 other times to add to our 8 Asian Golds. There were times when the International hockey players used the Ihsan hockey sticks made in Sialkot.
The decline had started in the late 90s, though the likes of ever so energetic Shahbaz and our Penalty corner specialist Sohail kept us competitive, the change of rules and our failure to resist their enforcement, not looking far ahead, when we could have influenced the FIH being important members and more so our inadaptability and not promoting the game at its grassroots and discouraging players to play in Hockey leagues around the world, put the final stamp on the coffin. Hockey never been a professional sport in the past, the players had to struggle for survival and dependent on win bonuses and very scarce endorsements, it never took off with the kids growing up who idolized cricketers with the glamour surrounding it. Hockey was pushed to the backstage, while the European countries continued to flourish, England amongst them by leaps and bounds. Here we see plenty of artificial turfs and facilities for schoolchildren and public in every area. I hardly remember seeing any even in our peak days. We were counting on individual talent and sheer hard work to compensate for all the lack of above, same was the case in Squash. It was a harsh reminder in the last World Cup this year Pakistan didn’t even qualify and was nowhere to be seen amongst the 12 teams participating. In the one prior to that we finished last, beaten by Canada once our whipping boys for the wooden spoon. In 2006, we had finished 4th in our group behind New Zealand and then 6th overall in the final standings, I had already stopped following! Besides there was no coverage of Hockey in England where I was residing. For a country used to seeing its team in at least the semi finals, now fighting for the playoffs for two consecutive World Cups was hard to swallow.
Pakistan is still the most successful team with four titles in the history of Hockey World Cup, since its inception in 1971 when Pakistan won the inaugural title. It was our very own brilliant Hockey Administrator Air Marshal Nur Khan who conceived the idea and floated to FIH. The trophy was also designed by a Pakistani. The Champions Trophy, the elite tournament played between the 6 best teams of the world on a round robin format historically(apart from the recent one) was also his idea. The First World Cup was supposed to be held in Pakistan, who alongwith India were amongst the leading members of the FIH; the organization administrating the Sports. Because of the Bangladesh Independence war and India’s involvement, it was shifted elsewhere, eventually won by us deservingly. Pakistan won another couple of titles in 1978 and 1982, incidentally in Bombay, at our arch rivals’ home. This was the first win which is vaguely etched in my memory. The forward line boasted by Pakistan in those days consisted of the two brothers Samiullah, the Flying Horse and Kaleemullah, Hanif Khan and the centre Forward Hassan Sardar who won many a heart with his brilliant performance scoring 11 goals and becoming the Man of the Tournament. The same year his hat trick help win the Asian Games title against our arch rival in Delhi 7-1! The crowning glory was however, the Gold medal at Los Angeles in the 1984 Olympics. This feeling was unsurmountable when the Pakistani National Anthem was played in the Stadium. We were on top of the world, being undisputed World and Olympic Champions and the best team in the world without a doubt. There were the likes of Blocher, Charlesworth, Haselhurst, Stephen Davies, Schmidt, Fischer, Floris Jan Bovelander, Escude, Stephan Veen, Sven Meinhardt, Sean Kerly and Dhanraj Pillay at various times illuminating the world stage but our Shahbaz was head and shoulders above all, being man of the tournament on a number of occasions. Once he was gone and the penalty corner rules were changed, Sohail Abbas carrying the team on his shoulders at one time fading, the game altered in many ways; rolling substitutions, abolition of offside rule and other changes. We didn’t keep pace with the changes, hockey disappeared from grounds virtually absent in schools colleges and no promotion on TV, while cricket was glorified, public lost interest as we lost our winning touch, never to be seen again on the World Stage.
1994 was the last time we won a major International tournament, both the Champions Trophy and the World Cup against Netherlands on penalties at Sydney, the saved penalty stroke by Mansur in the shootout watched by myself with a couple of friends at home, glued in front of TV, after skipping a lecture not before making a valiant but failed effort to get the lecture called off in excitement to let everyone watch the Final. When denied, I was bold enough to exclaim to the teacher, “on my life I won’t be able to miss the final by any chance!” Such was the enthusiasm for the game as we wanted to take our revenge on the Dutch for beating us 4 years back in our own backyard Lahore. We were World champions in Cricket, Hockey and Squash at that time, Pakistan sports at its pinnacle. We were runners up in 1996 and 1998 in Champions Trophy and then quickly confined to history books, till this year when we were runners up again in Bhubaneswar in a varied format which was conducive to us, despite performing badly in the initial stages. Luck was on our side, but the boys fought their hearts out beating arch rivals India, who were having their own problems, failing to keep pace with the changing game which they once dominated with their erstwhile foes and neighbours. A silver medal was still a harbinger of hope for a sport hopelessly forgotten and vanquished from our eyes, the Federation not doing enough to promote it, the lack of resources and talent both have taken its toll, while others have progressed and advanced their facilities and hence the sports ie the likes of England, Argentina and even New Zealand and Malaysia! Till we change our approach and start improving the infrastructure for Hockey development and promoting the game at its grassroots, I feel Hockey is dying in this country which once boasted Shehnaz Sheikh, Akhtar Rasool, Samiullah, Islahuddin, Dar brothers, Naseer Bunda, Hassan Sardar, Kaleemullah, Shahbaz and Sohail Abbas, the game which alighted the imagination of millions and their hearts beat with the exhilarating dribbles and turns, dancing around the defenders and artistically placing the ball in the back of the net to the roar of the excited commentators and spectators alike, the voice still echoing in the back of our minds just like it was yesterday.
I doubt if ever there will be a centre forward like Hassan Sardar, my first ever hockey hero or Shahbaz my last, and I would cherish the memories forever for having been around at the times of these legends, mesmerizing the audiences, bewildering any hockey fan who would watch them play in old recordings even now.