How Pakistan sport hit rock bottom | Crickit
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How Pakistan sport hit rock bottom

BySharda Ugra
Oct 27, 2023 09:05 AM IST

Around 30 years ago, Pakistanis were world champions in four sports – cricket, hockey, squash and in amateur snooker. Now, they are nowhere.

It’s been a disorienting few weeks, okay, a disorienting month. That’s not because of Netherlands beating South Africa and Afghanistan’s unexpected double, of victories over England and Pakistan inside ten days at CWC2023. The disorientation comes from trying to comprehend the vanishing of India’s strongest sub-continental sporting rival. Pakistan have gone from serious competitors to inexplicable lightweights; out of contention in disciplines where they were once spunky contenders at the highest level.

Pakistan's captain Babar Azam and wicketkeeper Mohammad Rizwan talk during the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup match between Pakistan and Afghanistan in Chennai(AP)
Pakistan's captain Babar Azam and wicketkeeper Mohammad Rizwan talk during the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup match between Pakistan and Afghanistan in Chennai(AP)

For western observers, Pakistan’s defeat to Afghanistan at the CWC can be laughed off as Pakistan being Pakistan, with chortling over which version will turn up vs South Africa. Except while cricket is eyeball-grabber, the just-concluded Asian Games in Hangzhou revealed deeper damages across Pakistani sport.

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There is a generation of middle-aged Indian sports fans who remember Pakistan swaggering through several sports not so long ago. Around 30 years ago, Pakistanis were world champions in four sports – cricket, hockey, squash and in amateur snooker. In 1994, they were to win their fourth hockey World Cup (after losing the 1990 final); no other country has yet won four hockey World Cups.

For a while, Pakistan were competing with the best on astroturf, which had given India perpetual heartburn. In squash, only Australia has more than Pakistan’s six World Team Championship titles, the last in 1993. Jansher Khan won the individual world championship eight times between 1987 and 1996 (defeated in 1988 by Jahangir). To Indians, being world champs in four sports simultaneously – three team, two individual - was a mindbender. Pakistan were that and we couldn’t fathom what it felt like.

Yet here we are: the defeat to Afghanistan appears to mark Pakistan sport’s rock bottom. Not just the result but the absence of intangible, distinct element of Pakistan’s athletes – it’s ruuh in Urdu, something like spirit or essence. Their unrelenting adversarial beastliness.

Pakistan’s hockey team last made the Olympics in London 2012.

In squash, their highest-ranked player is world no. 45 Shahjahan Khan was not part of the Asian Games squad in Hangzhou which lost the men’s team final to India.

Whoever followed Pakistan’s pomp across multiple sport, such a rapid fall is incomprehensible. It even seems baffling, until you hear from witnesses on the inside.

Pakistani journalist Shahid Hashmi currently covering the World Cup for news agency AFP, said he had not seen such a “helpless and clueless” Pakistan team as they were against Afghanistan. He adds the team’s situation in the Cup today is just an “overall reflection of the country.”

He says, “our economy is a shambles and we’re taking loans from outside and now we want loans from other teams – Netherlands and Sri Lanka to beat Afghanistan and Bangladesh to beat South Africa - to create upsets in this World Cup and give us some way to reach the semi-finals, to sneak through like we did in 1992.”

Critical of Babar Azam’s captaincy, he says Pakistan’s cricket today “like in the country” lacks leadership. The PCB is due to have another change at the top next month, Hashmi says, with a fourth Board chairman in a single year, Zaka Ashraf lined up for another exit.

Rasheed Shakoor, multi-sport journalist has watched Pakistan sport from the sidelines over the last four decades. Their slide he says is a result of, “dirty politics and unnecessary influence of the government.” Much is known about how the PCB’s constitution stipulates political intervention, with the country’s prime minister’s currently appointing its chairman.

“The government in power puts its own person in the job” the ripple effect felt down the line. Shakoor reminds us that the head of the Pakistan Air Force is defacto president of the squash federation. Given the demands of his day job, it’s the lower level functionaries who control affairs. Pakistan’s squash families have had to manage on their own.

Shakoor says, “the federation’s role is limited but even if they are trying to train young players, it’s not that the modern kind of training that’s needed, there’s no system and there’s not much of a talent pool either.” At the turn of the millenium, as he watched Jansher struggle with knee and back injuries, Shakoor said, “I felt our time was up. We didn’t have anyone who could replace him, and that if we get someone, it will be a one-off, once in ten or fifteen years.” In July this year, Hamza Khan became the first Pakistani to win the Junior World championship after 37 years.

The most stinging assessment from Shakoor is reserved for the governors of the Pakistani Hockey Federation, and their Olympic medal-winning officials. Pakistan hockey has received crores in annual grants but “the money was never spent on hockey development – these Olympians filled their own pockets and didn’t do anything,” he says. In his view, a clutch of his country’s Olympic medal-winners, “are responsible for the downfall of Pakistan hockey. When they became PHA presidents, secretaries, they have damaged it…”

Their names while illustrious - Akhtar Rasool, Qasim Zia, Asif Bajwa, Rana Mujahid, Shahbaz Ahmed - are now taken in allegations and counter allegations of corruption and mismanagement of funds.

Pakistan’s downslide into sporting purgatory, according to Karachi-based writer Ahmer Naqvi, must be put into context. It happened when the nature of sport itself was changing with the country’s economy failing to keep pace.

While the high noon of mid-1990s, Naqvi says, “seemed to represent the start of some golden era of athletic achievement, it was really the end of a previous era.”

Of state-supported patronage for sport, combined with support for talent to produce the best results at a global level. With the opening-up of the Pakistan economy in the 1990s, state patronage was upended by a new free market. Where despite cricket and hockey’s popularity, the scale of Pakistan’s economy meant that it was hard to raise the commercial leverage to boost sport.

Naqvi says that while India negotiated its economic change into cricket, Pakistan’s economy was “far more rickety.” Despite foreign aid during the Musharraf boomtime, “the market has really failed to take on the mantle” as fund-raiser and generator, even for cricket. He points out that even the Pakistan Super League, “which is a very widely watched product is held back by the fact that the economy really isn’t strong enough to take it to places it could go.”

The fading away of school sports, the increase in private schooling without sports fields, the lack of heft in the market to lift snooker’s popularity from its thousands of dens into a professional structure are all factors. “It’s a combination of answers” (as to how Pakistan’s sport has faded) which took place at a time, “where sport itself transitioned from various forms of patronage to a becoming a purely commercial enterprise and when that happened, it caught Pakistan out.”

In what is looking to like the onset of Indian sport’s brightest era, why should Indians care about what happens across the border? To recognise the dangers of sporting misgoverance, naturally. And to accept that the hysterics about the ‘Indo-Pak’ rivalry and jung on social media and TV is just hot air. Because our rival steps onto the field with shoelaces tied together. What you’re seeing is not rivalry or contest, it’s farce.

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