The year 2012 can only be termed as a phenomenal year for sports in Pakistan.
There were the customary bans and fines – Abdul Rehman banned for using recreational drugs while Danish Kaneria was found guilty of spot-fixing in county cricket – but on the field, there was plenty to celebrate for the nation.
What started off in an unexpected and unbelievable whitewash of England, the top-ranked Test side in the world, ended with double joy for the faltering hockey team, one that the nation had lost all confidence in. A 3-2 win in Melbourne brought home a bronze medal after eight years while just weeks after that triumph, Pakistan beat the same opponents 5-4 to lift the 2nd Asian Champions Trophy hockey title in Doha. The turnaround from a poor London Olympics was swift and unexpected given the sacking of Dutch coach Michel van dan Heuvel earlier in the year and Pakistan Hockey Federation’s policy of persisting with under-par seniors for mega events. Shakeel Abbasi rolled back the years and became the nation’s favourite courtesy his timely strikes – despite them being outnumbered by his glaring misses – and the captain promised the return of glory days.
There was plenty to celebrate for the lesser known sports – snooker became a household name with Mohammad Asif’s triumph in Bulgaria, ju-jitsu medals were brought home with ease, kabaddi renewed our trust in cultural sports (courtesy the on-field rivalry with India and the gimmicks put on in the middle) and having a good vocabulary was finally rewarded with outside of the classroom – a third-place finish in the world youth scrabble championship.
The star of the year, however, was Saeed Ajmal. Ninety-five wickets across all three formats, leading Pakistan to many wins and mesmerising opposition at will. Ajmal made Pakistan, and Pakistanis, believe there is life beyond Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif. Low scores – a trend often displayed considering the familiar collapses – were now defendable.
While victories were celebrated and podiums were cherished, Pakistan were left to rue a poor Olympics appearance. Hockey was the only credible medal hope but swimmers’ and athletes’ show in London brought into vision the daylight that exists between us and the rest of the world. Lack of adequate facilities, world-class coaching and training opportunities played their fair part in depriving a nation of 180 million of a podium-finish. The blue astro-turf – the biggest change in hockey for the Olympics – was due to arrive in Lahore during April, giving the team plenty of time to get accustomed to the new colour. Conflicts, financial issues and pending approvals meant the astro-turf reached eight months late and the Greenshirts failed to arrive at the Olympics, finishing seventh. From tartan tracks to running on grass once again, Rabia Ashiq – the 800m runner representing Pakistan in London – has faded since her Olympics debut. Israr Hussain, the swimmer, spent his early days training in a lake. A look at the recently concluded National Games – despite issues surrounding their legality – shows how youngsters are not even getting the basic technique right, with no one there to guide them.
Focus on the grass-root level is just not there anymore – evident from how low football has fallen – and the finances are nowhere to be seen — the recently crowned world amateur snooker champion had to resort to private sponsorships after the federation refused to fund his trip that landed him the trophy. The state of domestic cricket is in a shamble, there is no selection committee to scout hockey talent in the country and the smaller federations are awaiting the arrival of promised funds five months after the allocation.
Pakistan’s success on the field should act as a stepping stone for improvement, not as a blind-fold to the many obstacles and hurdles that exist and the mistakes of the past.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 31st, 2012.