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‘Cricket’s success can revive dying hockey in Pakistan’

Called the Maradona of hockey, World Cup-winning captain Shahbaz Ahmed has been entrusted with reviving hockey in Pakistan.

other sports Updated: Jun 24, 2017 08:28 IST
Soumitra Bose
Shahbaz Ahmed is the only hockey player to win two consecutive Player of the tournament awards, in the 1990 World Cup in Lahore and at the 1994 World Cup in Sydney.
Shahbaz Ahmed is the only hockey player to win two consecutive Player of the tournament awards, in the 1990 World Cup in Lahore and at the 1994 World Cup in Sydney.(HT Photo )

World Cup-winning Shahbaz Ahmed has Pakistan’s hockey fortunes in his hand. The 48-year-old former striker, who has played three Olympics, is Pakistan Hockey Federation’s secretary general, a post he has held since September 2015.

(Read | Cricketers new role models for hapless Pakistan hockey team)

Shahbaz Ahmed is one of the greatest hockey players in the game’s history. The all-time leading cap holder, having represented Pakistan 304 times, is the only player to win two consecutive Player of the tournament awards, in the 1990 World Cup in Lahore and at the 1994 World Cup in Sydney.

(Read | Hockey World League semifinal: Pakistan no match for tactical Argentina)

Shahbaz spoke to HT on the sidelines of the Hockey World League at the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:

You seemed to have booked an early flight home. Don’t you want to see Pakistan qualify for the 2018 World Cup in India?

I have been tasked with reviving Pakistan hockey. I want to see Pakistan bouncing back from where we currently are. It’s not a happy scenario (Pakistan are ranked 13 in the world). There is lot of work to be done. Qualifying for the World Cup is a process.

You have been one of the greatest in world hockey and fans loved you in India.

I started my international career in Kolkata (1986) and played my second tournament in the Indira Gandhi Cup in 1987 in Lucknow. The press in India and Pakistan called me a “superman” and the “man with electric heels.” I was the best player of the tournament and I can never forget the admiration we got.

(Read | Hockey World League Semi-Final: After Malaysia shock, India wary of Pakistan)

India and Pakistan do not have any bilateral sporting ties, especially in hockey and cricket. Has that harmed the game at large?

Certainly it has. Pakistan certainly have lost out for sure. We did not qualify for the Rio Olympics and we did not play the (2014) World Cup in The Hague and now we are not sure about 2018 World Cup in India. Beauty of hockey comes when India and Pakistan play each other. Here in London, people came to watch the India versus Pakistan match. If Pakistan do not get the opportunity to play big tournaments, it will be very difficult to revive the game.

The FIH president (Narinder Batra) is an Indian. Given the political scenario, are you hopeful of playing a series with India?

Batra may be an Indian but he needs to understand that he is the president of the world body. He needs to be fair and transparent. He must spread the message of peace and translate them into deeds. On an invitation from Dhanraj Pillay, I have travelled to India when they launched the professional league. I got so much warmth. As players we share good feelings. I am sure administrators can do the same.

(Read | FIH boss Narinder Batra says sorry to Pakistan Hockey Federation)

Why did you take up hockey administration?

When I played my last World Cup in 2002, I could smell that the current administrators cannot produce good results. A player-turned-administrator has a big advantage. I have played 20 years of international hockey and several years in European league. I have seen what it takes to become a strong nation.

Why is Pakistan hockey not growing?

The biggest problem is that the young players who are coming into Pakistan hockey lack education. Astro-turf hockey is a science and we are not up to it.

(Read | After ICC Champions Trophy win, Sarfraz Ahmed urges India to play cricket in Pakistan)

In the Hockey World League here, Pakistan lost to India 7-1 and lost to Canada 6-0. Were you shocked?

Yes. I could not digest the results. We are not mentally strong and lack stamina to play hard. Their body language is weak and they are playing simple hockey. We have to mix skill with aggression and then only we can survive. India is doing this quite well.

Is foreign coach a remedy for Pakistan?

I don’t think so. That’s not a solution. The average age of the current side is 25-plus. A foreign coach will be unable to turn them around. My vision is to build a developmental squad of 40-50 boys with strong basics and then hire a high-performance manager. A foreigner is good at strategy and analysis. He is very good on a drawing board but hockey is played on the field.

But you need lot of support to see your vision come good.

That’s absolutely true. The pity is that there is no money in Pakistan hockey. There are no jobs. If we can introduce a league, pump in funds and give proper incentives, Pakistan hockey will be up and running in two-three years.

There was a time when Pakistan was known for hockey, cricket and squash. Now it’s only about cricket.

It’s very true that hockey is dying. But I am not giving up. Our under-18 team won gold in the Australian national championship and the team is spending five months there to groom itself. Now we only need polished products.

Are there role models in Pakistan hockey?

Not really. Cricket’s success (in Champions Trophy) is an eye-opener and that will give hockey new life. Pakistan hockey needs victories and only then it will rise and shine again. Nobody wants to play hockey now but we have a history of resurgence in sports and I will try my best to ensure hockey is not dead in Pakistan.