Has this discipline brought glories no other sport has been able to do?
The Cricket World Cup ended on March 29. Pakistan’s campaign had ended nine days earlier. Cricket fever had gripped the nation. The local media remained obsessed throughout. Numerous World Cup programmes, mostly with little actual cricket in them, went on air. Some of them were presented in a very bizarre manner.
There was no less than a national mourning over the seventh-ranked team’s exit in the quarter-finals. The media began the post mortem in full earnest; it is not yet finished.
For any neutral observer, all seems very odd. Admittedly, cricket is the most popular sport in this country. But is cricket the only sport played in the world’s sixth most populous country? Has this discipline brought glories no other sport has been able to do?
At least in two games, Pakistan’s achievements are still envied by the world.
In hockey, our record of winning four World Cups is still intact. Moreover, it is the only sport that has fetched the country gold and silver medals at the Olympics. Hockey’s Olympic tally for Pakistan stands at three gold, three silver and two bronze medals.
All the other sports have given a combined total of two bronze medals. Such is the importance of hockey for Pakistan. Yet, when the unthinkable happened -- Pakistan failed to qualify for the 2014 Hockey World Cup -- there was no national outcry. There were a couple of demonstrations, a few press conferences by former stalwarts and some discussions on TV channels. And that was it. Regrettably, no heads rolled. The shameless quartet of Akhtar Rasool, Rana Mujahid, Qasim Zia and Asif Bajwa still rules the roost; only roles have changed.
Pakistan’s success saga in squash is even more fascinating. Hashim Khan winning the British Open in 1951 meant the country had its first world champion in sports within four years of existence. The next fifty years or so saw Pakistan dominating the sport of squash like no other nation. Hashim’s countrymen have won the British Open title a total of 30 times; no other country has even half of that.
Jahangir Khan’s tally of 10 British Open wins is in no danger of being equaled in the foreseeable future.
Pakistan’s rule at the World Open, the other prestigious squash title, is equally impressive with 14 wins. The next successful nation sits far behind with eight titles.
Individually, again a Pakistani, Jansher Khan, leads the way with eight victories.
The last time Pakistan won the British Open was in 1997, and the World Open a year before.
What to talk of having a world champion, for the last several years, no Pakistani has even figured among the top 20.
In any other country, it would have amounted to a national catastrophe, but not here. Athletics is called the mother of all sports. Pakistan were the supreme track and field nation in Asia for a considerable period. They also won medals of all shades at Commonwealth Games in ‘50s and ‘60s. Though the Olympics show no medals for Pakistani athletes, quite a few excelled at the biggest show.
Sprinter Khaliq, hurdler Raziq, hammer thrower Iqbal and javelin thrower Nawaz attained world rankings of 7th to 13th via their performances at the Olympics.
It has been decades since a Pakistani athlete even qualified for the Olympics -- they have only been getting wild card entries. The last medal at the Asiad, a bronze, came way back in 1994. Track and field, Olympics’ most popular discipline requires minimal finances. Poor African nations such as Ethiopia and Kenya have been very successful in distance running.
In wrestling, Pakistan have earned medals at all the levels, including Olympics. Yes, the country’s first of the two individual Olympic medals was a bronze won by Mohammad Bashir in 1960.
At the Commonwealth Games, of the 24 gold medals won by Pakistan, the share of the wrestlers is an astonishing 20. Though our grapplers still shine at the Commonwealth Games, performance at the more competitive Asian arena has declined. Pakistan were once a potent wrestling force at the Asian Games. The wrestlers won six gold medals with the last one coming in 1986. Since then not even a bronze has been won at the Asiad.
Pakistani wrestlers of the ‘60s used to tell, "Whenever we came across an Indian wrestler at the Asiad, Commonwealth Games or Olympics, it was a rest day for us". The Indians are winning medals at the Olympics now.
Squash is not the only racket game giving us world class players. Badminton had a golden era in the ‘70s when Pakistan had world class players like Tariq Wadood, Hassan Shaheed and Javed Iqbal.
In the 1974 Asian Games, Pakistan defeated the teams of Japan and South Korea, badminton’s two major powers. At the 1978 Asiad, they went even better and won the team bronze. Remember, the Asian dominance of badminton is overwhelming. As many as seven different countries of the continent currently figure in world’s top 10 men and women.
The Asians’ small frame, agility, flexibility and wrist work make them physically geared for this sport.
It is time this one-sport culture was checked. This scribe has met many foreigners expressing their surprise, "It seems only cricket is played in this country."
Definitely, people associated with these other sports are also to be blamed, but the apathy of government, media, and corporate entities has also contributed to the decline.
Sincere people associated with these sports should try to revive these disciplines. Today, marketing, media involvement and creating glamour are essential for popularising any sport.
Right from childhood, we are told that sports make us healthy. But about the discipline that devours all the other sports in this part of the world, one of its own superstar, Bishen Bedi, the former Indian captain, once remarked, "Cricket is the only outdoor sport where one might end gaining weight."