Milkha Singh — The Flying Sikh

Published in THE NEWS (A leading English language Pakistani daily) on 07/07/13

The Bollywood movie ‘Bhag Milkha Bhag’ hitting the world screens in a few days depicts the life of the legendary Indian athlete Milkha Singh, who was fourth in the 400 metres at the 1960 Olympics. The Milkha saga is tailor made for the celluloid.

He was eleven when made to run for his life. Having seen his parents and other relatives slain in front of him in the aftermath of the partition in 1947 in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad, then called Lyallpur, Milkha escaped to India by hanging onto a Delhi-bound train. After roaming the streets of Delhi for a few years and doing menial jobs, Milkha joined the Indian Army, a decision that changes his life. Sports have always been an essential part of the army routine. The young Sikh soon discovered that short distance running, 400 and 200 metres, was his forte. Soon he was the best in his unit.

In a big services meet, Milkha saw some athletes who had India written on their vests. On his enquiry, he was told, “These army men have been representing India in international meets as they are the national champions in their respective events.”

That day Milkha set his sights on earning an India vest. He got fully focused. Every day, he ran for hours. If due to duty commitments he couldn’t find time during the day, he practised during night. Fellow soldiers would keep the dinner.

Within a couple of years, he had broken the national records for both 400 & 200 metres and Milkha was representing his country in the biggest event.

At the 1956 Olympics, Milkha got eliminated in the first round and felt out of place. He said afterwards, “The clear superiority of the others shocked me but at the same time it inspired me.”

He gathered courage to ask American Charles Jenkins, the winner of the 400 metres, for guidance. “He was nice enough to write a training schedule for me.”

From then onwards, Milkha concentrated on his next goal — to excel at the international stage. His preparation included unconventional methods. The determined boy ran on the hills and on the sands of the river. He trained so vigorously that sometimes the training schedule would end up with Milkha vomiting blood.

He fully arrived at the international athletics’ scene at the 1958 Asian games. Milkha first won the 400 m, creating a new Asian record. Pakistan’s Abdul Khaliq, also a Punjabi soldier, retained his 100 m title.

Now both were eyeing the 200m. An added incentive was the title of the best athlete of the Asiad 1958; one has to win at least two individual golds. Khaliq led the field all the way with Milkha just behind him. Just short of the finish line, Milkha made a sort of a dive and flung himself ahead of Khaliq to win the 200 m race and was declared the continent’s best athlete in the bargain.

The golden run continued. A few weeks later, Milkha triumphed again, at an even more competitive field — the Commonwealth Games. He beat a world class field to win the 400m — till date the only gold won by a male Indian athlete at the Commonwealth Games.

Next he set sight at the 1960 Olympics — his ultimate aim. In the year in between, Milkha competed in numerous meets in Europe, winning almost all of them. He was also awarded America’s Helms trophy for being the best 400m runner of 1959.

Milkha was in the form of his life at the Rome Olympics in 1960. He easily went through the preliminaries to reach the semi-final. The field at the Rome Olympics is widely acknowledged as the finest gathering of the 400m runners. In the lead up to the event, Milkha had beaten all of them with the exception of American Otis Davis.

In his semi-final, Milkha was second only to Davis. Most of the pundits predicted silver for him in the final. But Milkha had gold in his mind and that was how he started.  He made a flying start and after 250 metres, he was ahead of the rest. At that moment he did something which he deeply regrets even today. Milkha thought he was going at too fast a pace and might fizzle out towards the end. He slowed down a bit and even glanced back a little. That fraction of a second made all the difference; one by one, three went past Milkha. “I desperately tried to catch up at least with the man in the third place, the South African Spence, who I had beaten at the Commonwealth Games. As the race ended, we apparently finished equal.”

The announcement of the result was withheld for sometime as the official photo finish was awaited. Unfortunately, Milkha was fourth with the South African just edging him for the bronze.

Still, Milkha had broken the Olympics record — such was the strength of the field that day: the first two bettered the world record and the third and the fourth going past the Olympic record.

Milkha remains the only South Asian athlete to break an Olympic record.

But this was a scant consolation. Milkha remained immersed in sorrow for days. Even today this brings tears in his eyes.

His son Jeev Milkha, the highest ranked Indian golfer in the world, says, “Father is going to die with this regret at the back of his mind.”

He came out of it in the only way he could; competing in the meets again. He was good enough to retain the 400 m gold at the Asian Games of 1962. Farhan Akhtar plays the role of Milkha in the movie. He worked tirelessly for almost two years to get into the lean and muscular figure for the role and also to develop a running style akin to that of the great athlete.

Sonam Kapoor is the lead lady who portrays Milkha’s first girlfriend inspiring him to join army. He also had a little flirt with an Australian female athlete.

Pakistani actress Meesha Shaafi also acts in the movie.

The movie has beautiful tracks in the voice of luminous singers including Diyya Kumar, Shreya Ghosal, Daler Mehndi and our own Arif Lohar.

Milkha hopes the movie will inspire the youth to excel at sports in general and athletics in particular. One expects the Pakistani youth is also motivated by the fascinating tale of South Asia’s greatest male athlete who was not only born in this country but also got his most popular title — ‘the Flying Sikh’ — here.

Cricketers as role models

Published in Pakistan Today on 28/8/11

Young age, especially the school time, is the most impressionable period in a person’s life. A child always looks for role models who could be among his peers, teachers, etc. but quite often, they idolise sports icons. At the same time, these stars are looked upon to display righteous character. If involved in some turpitude they are no longer considered role models. All over the world, sportspersons enjoy cult status. In our part of the world, cricket is the most followed sport by a mile. Kids simply adore star cricketers. So no surprise that cricketers are often invited as chief guests at the sports functions of educational institutions.

The other day, on television, I was taken aback to see former Pakistan captain Salman Butt at an annual sports day of a school. Moreover, the channel also aired his views about the function. Everyone knows that Salman Butt was involved in the spot-fixing case in the Test match during Pakistan’s tour of England last year. Initially, he was suspended from playing international cricket. After the ICC investigation and hearing, he was banned from the sport of cricket for 10 years. In fact, of the three banned players, charges proved against Salman were most heinous: ordering Amir and Asif to bowl no- balls in the fourth Test.

This scribe was in England when this episode of spot-fixing surfaced. Being a sports journalist, my views about the news were sought by so many of my acquaintances; not only the Pakistanis but also by the English as well as the Indians there. It was a humiliating experience to say the least. Former Pakistani Test cricketer, Wazir Mohammad, the eldest of the famous Mohammad brothers and one of the pioneers of Pakistan cricket, has been living in England for more than four decades. He reflected in a very depressed tone,” Bhai, it has become difficult even to step outside the home. Everyone in the vicinity knows me and I am invariably asked to comment on this spot-fixing saga.” Cricket is more or less an unknown commodity in the USA, yet this incident was in the sports headlines even there. Indeed, this shameful episode has disgraced Pakistan all over the world.

Salman Butt, now proven guilty, who should not have a place to hide in Pakistan, is still being treated as a national star. First, during the cricket World Cup 2011, he was there at a noted TV channel regularly giving expert comments. Then he has been appearing on a fashion channel telling his choices for apparel for different seasons and functions.

But this is too much: VIP guest at a school children’s function.

Pakistan artistry helps fuel football success

I picked up something that was being reported in the news (German national team soccer Coach Klinsman thought about hiring national hockey coach) and my following feature grew out of it. I had read a passing mention about it some where. For details, I contacted Abdul Waheed Khan in Pakistan. Published in World Hockey April 2006 (Online Issue 32)

While speculation earlier this year linked German hockey coach Bernhard Peters to a post in football, the connection between the sports dates back almost 20 years when Argentina’s football manager Cesar Luis Menotti became intrigued by Pakistan’s sublime technical skills.

The year was 1978 and the place Argentina. That year, Argentina was host to two World Cups: Hockey in March/April and soccer in June.

Throughout the Hockey World Cup, a wonderful Pakistan team managed by Abdul Waheed Khan displayed a breathtaking attacking game which captivated crowds and connoisseurs alike.

During their victorious campaign, the green shirts created several records:
1. The first team to capture the World Cup without losing (or even drawing) a single match
2. Pakistan’s goal difference of 31 goals (35 for and four against) remains a World Cup record
3. Their total of 35 goals was also a new high for a single edition of a World Cup (only to be bettered by Pakistan itself in the next World Cup).

Records aside, it was the style and manner in which they pulverised all defences which endeared them to all.

According to their manager Waheed Khan, Pakistan’s attacking strategy was based upon concept of double attack – if a move from right side failed then they made all the possible efforts to immediately initiate a move from left side on the assumption that most of the opponents’ defence had become concentrated on the right side, and vice versa.

Midway through the Hockey World Cup, on a rest day, Waheed Khan was informed that the manager of Argentine soccer team, Menotti, had arrived on his personal plane to see him. The Argentine chain-smoking coach always favoured a stylish, attacking game based on skill and technique.

Menotti wanted to discuss in detail with Waheed, the tactics to penetrate packed defences. He watched a training session of Pakistan team with Waheed. He (Waheed) explained to Menotti his strategy of ‘double attack’, as well as the ‘use of wingers’ whenever it becomes difficult to override the opposition through the middle. He watched a training session of Pakistan team with Waheed.

“I explained to him how it all worked in practice. He noted a few points and then left the ground. The rest is history.” said Waheed.

Argentina went on to win the Soccer World Cup for the first time. And Menotti sent Waheed a telegram acknowledging that the Pakistan hockey team’s ploys had come in very handy to him.

AN – NILE – ATION

My round up of the British Junior Open 2008 published in Squash Player (the official magazine of World Squash Federation) in its Issue 2 of 2008

The British Junior Open is widely, and rightly, regarded as the most prestigious international squash tournament for juniors. All the current top five ranked men players have been past winners of a title here, as has Nicol David. It was also the year opener, staged from 2-6 January, as always, at Sheffield’s famous Abbbeydale and Hallamshire courts.

More than 450 players from 34 countries in all parts of the globe participated in the 2008 Tecnifibre British Junior Open which as in recent years was again dominated by Egyptian players. In fact, it was a case of deja-vu, as they won six titles for the third consecutive year. In the boys’ events, the Egyptians made a clean sweep, winning all the four titles (with such a conveyer belt, their current domination of men’s ranking seems unstoppable for the foreseeable future), while their girls won two. There were as many as 11 of them in the finals – a tournament record. The Mediterranean wave meant that four of the eight finals were all Egyptian affairs and there was only one final with no Egyptian contender. Five Egyptians entered the draws in each section, a total of 40 (though one was unable to come due to injury) and most of the parents also accompanied their kids. Little wonder that the ambience was that of Cairo or Alexandria rather than Sheffield.

The star of the show was Mohammad El Shorbagy, the 16 year old winner of the Boys’ Under 19. Presently based in England under the tutelage of the legendary Jonah Barrington, and favourite for the title, Shorbagy achieved a hat trick, winning his third title here in as many years. What makes the feat unique is that he won a different age group each time. But the man who was seeded to face him in the final, Switzerland’s European champion Nicolas Mueller was ousted in straight sets in the second round by Shorbagy’s compatriot Wael Farag – a major early round upset.

The only ‘non-Egyptian final’, the Girls’ U 19 turned out to be the most dramatic. Last year’s runner up and this year’s favourite, Camille Serme of France, the European champion rallied from two games down to overpower the 2nd seeded Annie Au of Hong Kong, the Asian champion.

Already a WISPA top 30 player, Serme carries the French squash federation’s hopes of producing a women’s champion to follow the footsteps of Theiry Lincou and Gregory Gaultier – some progress for a nation which did not even have a national squash federation until 1981.

The Girls’ U 17 final was another thrilling spectacle – and another five game duel, India’s charming Deepika Pallikar seeded 5/8 upset top-seeded Egyptian Heba Torky who was just one match away from her fifth consecutive title here.

Incidentally, Palliker tasted her first title success also on her fifth appearance. Living and training in Egypt for last few years, she promises to become the Sania Mirza of Indian women squash.

The Boys’ U 17 final followed the same script as that of Girls, 5/8 seeded Karim Abdel Gamad, surprising his top seeded compatriot Amr Khalid Khalifa. And as in the Boys’ U 19, the 2nd seed at U 17, Pakistan’s Farhan Zaman made an early (third round) exit. However Khalifa’s younger brother atoned for the family disappointment and produced the most shocking result of all the finals. Seeded only 9/16 in the Boys’

U 13, he thrashed the top seeded fellow Egyptian, Shehab Essam in straight games.

The Boys’ U 15 final featured former squash super power, Pakistan’s lone finalist, Nasir Iqbal. Winner of the U13 title last year, he proved no match to Al Fathi, himself a former winner of the U13 title in 2006.

The finals of the Girls’ U15 and U13 were all Egyptian affairs. El Sherbany retained her U 13 crown. El Tayeb, also a previous winner of the U13 title, back in 2004, successfully moved up to U15.

After Egypt, the distant second was France, the only other country to provide two finalists, each in the senior most events i.e. the Boys’ U19 and the Girls’ U19 (which Serme won).

It was astonishing not to find a single finalist from the host country, despite its having a huge presence. More surprising since only a few weeks previously, England had won the Men’s world team championships. Perhaps, English boys mature a bit late. But there was some consolation as four English lads made it into the semis including two at U 19. Even English presence had an Egyptian flavour as England’s participant in the Girls’ U 17, Nayera Sharif is of Egyptian decent.

Though they had no representation in the last four, South Africa had the highest participation after England and Egypt with 20. Most of them had borne their own expenses, which speaks loudly for their youngsters’ enthusiasm.

Malaysia and Hong Kong also had strong representation but they were more fortunate to have the financial support of their governments and squash federations. Malaysia had a Pakistani coach and a more interesting Pakistani connection. Kamran Khan, son of legendary Jansher Khan and his former Malaysian wife reached the third round at U19. Kamran has been regularly coming to this event for last few years. According to him, he has had no contact with his father for last many years.

For Pakistan itself, as on the senior circuit, fortunes continue to plummet. In fact, it was their worst show here in years with just one runner up position to take home. On the other hand, its big neighbour, India is continuing its gradual progress. India had a reasonably big contingent, most of them sponsored and the winner of the Girls’ U17 event, Dipika Pillai is an exciting prospect who should do well at senior level in the near future.

It was shock to find a ‘token’ appearance for the mega squash nation, Australia: two males and just one girl. However, on deeper analysis the reasons were simple. There is no patronage for junior Aussies from any quarters and their geographical location means big travel expenses to any European event. These factors mean almost no participation in international junior circuit. The same was the case with New Zealand, and for exactly the same reasons.

Most gratifyingly, the world’s premier junior squash tournament had a truly global look, with players even from countries with little squash pedigree such as Columbia, Trinidad and Tobago and Israel

.My round up of the British Junior Open 2008 published in Squash Player (the official magazine of World Squash Federation) in its Issue 2 of 2008

The 2008 Tecnifibre British Junior Open was very well organised with initial rounds at Hallamshire and Abbeydale courts with finals only staged at latter. It was very well covered by the official website www.bjosquash.com which also provided excellent photos and slideshows as well as history of the event.

It was the first year of England Squash’s three- year event sponsorship agreement with Tecnifibre. The tournament director, Chris Nutley, Competition and Events Manager, England Squash, was also grateful to the Event Unit of Sheffield City Council, especially for running a regular and frequent transport shuttle service between the hotels where players were staying and the two squash clubs.

In a few years, all those fortunate to be present at the magnificent Abbeydale courts on the final day will be proudly relating that they watched the current world squash champion lifting a British Junior Open title – most probably an Egyptian.

A Bowling Performance That Changed Pakistani Cricket

My article on the website of ‘Cricket World’, (one of the leading Cricket magazines of England), published on 16 April 2008

Pakistan won its first ever Test in Australia in Sydney in 1976-77. With this victory, Pakistan managed to draw the three Test series 1-1. The main architect of Pakistan’s victory was their fast bowler, Imran Khan, who took 12 wickets in the match.

But there is something more to Imran’s heroic bowling performance in that game.

Until then, the general impression was that Pakistan could not produce a genuine fast bowler. Pakistani new ball bowlers were fast-medium or medium fast. Fazal Mahmood did produce match winning performances in 1950s but apart from his 12 wickets against England in 1954 the rest were achieved on matting wickets. Then he was never a genuine fast bowler, medium-fast and occasionally fast-medium. His 12 wickets against England were taken in a very low scoring game in which the highest team total in the four innings was 164. All the main bowlers of England also had their moments at least in one innings.

On the other hand, Imran in 1976 outshone all the other bowlers including Australia’s legendary Dennis Lillee who had taken ten wickets in the previous test where Aussies pulverized Pakistan.

This Test victory helped Pakistan drew the series thus becoming the first country other than England and South Africa to draw a Test series in Australia.

Australia was the supreme Test nation at that time. They had demolished a formidable West Indian side 5-1 the previous season. And the Windies’ side included in Andy Roberts and Michael Holding two of the greatest fast bowlers in the history of the game.

Apart from Fazal Mahmood, some other fast mediums like Khan Mohammad and Sarfraz Nawaz, a contemporary of Imran Khan, had served Pakistan well but neither of them was a genuine fast bowler nor had won a Test match single handedly in the way Imran did.

Imran’s performance at Sydney in 1976-77 dispelled the impression that people from sub-continent can not be genuine fast bowlers. Up until then Pakistan had mostly flopped on foreign tours. Their only Test series victory away form home was 1-0 win in New Zealand in 1972-3. At home, they prepared slow wickets resulting in an astonishing number of drawn matches.

Imran’s Sydney show had a multi-dimensional effect on Pakistan cricket which has lasted years. More and more youngsters started taking to fast bowling seriously. The cautious approach of the administration also changed. They started preparing fast pitches at home.
Two seasons later, Imran was the third fastest in a competition in Australia which tested a number of well-known fast bowlers of the time for speed. This augmented the impetus.

Within a few years came the emergence of Wasim Akram, arguably the most talented fast bowler in the history of the game. Then Pakistan started producing genuine and world class fast bowlers most regularly: Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar and now Mohammad Asif.

While a few others such as Mohammad Zahid, and Mohammad Akram shone for brief periods. Imran’s performance was the spark that lit the generations of Pakistan quicks. Pakistan started winning abroad and victories at home also started coming via pace men.

It all changed after that Sydney Test of 1977 which made millions of people all over Pakistan wake up early in small hours of cold January mornings to listen to the radio commentary.

Sydney Test 1977 Scorecard

Hockey Sapling Firmly Planted in the Qatari Desert

Feature on Qatar Hockey published in the February 2013 Issue No: 41 of PUSH (the only independent print magazine on hockey in the UK).

Hockey Sapling Firmly Planted in the Qatari Desert- Growing at a Breathtaking Pace

A country without a national hockey body before 2009 had a dream year of hockey in 2012. In one single year Qatar achieved a number of milestones. They played their first ever international game, tasted the maiden international victory (over a nation ranked much above them) and staged not one but two international tournaments –that too FIH sanctioned- the second of which had continent’s top sides.

Dynamic Duo behind all this-QHF president Hassan Al Qadi & secretary general Mohamed Abdul Nazer
Dynamic Duo behind all this-QHF president Hassan Al Qadi & secretary general Mohamed Abdul Nazer

The oil rich gulf kingdom is world’s wealthiest country according to Forbes. Also has the highest GDP per capita and planet’s fastest economy growth rate at 19%. The expatriates outnumber the locals. The native population of just 250,000 constitute less than one sixth of the total 1.8 million people. More than 40% of the expatriates come from South Asia or the Indian subcontinent. Little wonder, people from India and Pakistan played the pivotal role in the development of the Qatar hockey.

Mohamed Abdul Nazer, an expat from the Indian state of Kerala, is the secretary of Qatar Hockey Federation since its inception in 2009. He narrates the turbulent life the sport of hockey has lived in the country, “People here talked about hockey being played in the schools back in 60s and 70s but the sport had virtually disappeared in Qatar by the end of the 70s. A rebirth of sort was witnessed in early 80s. Enthusiasm was there despite the lack of playing facilities. As many as 10-eleven a side- teams were active but a solitary hockey ground, in capital Doha, meant they often had to wait for their turn. The names of clubs such as Pakistan Wanderers, Sialkot Wanderers, Indian Goans, UK Tigers, etc. depict their mainly expat compositions.”

But hockey in Qatar again sank into oblivion in the late 80s as the only ground was taken away to develop a park. Only a few real enthusiasts were seen wielding the sticks on a couple of handball courts but the club or team game was nowhere to be seen. This dormant period lasted a very long time. It took the efforts of Mr Nazer himself to revive the sport. “In 2004, I selected a car park as the hockey pitch where I assembled a group of about 15 boys including my own to play the game. After a while, the squad shifted to a handball court before moving to a mini football ground.”

Action from a Division 1 encounter
Action from a Division 1 encounter

The catalyst that changed it for good was the Doha 2006 Asiad. Hockey being a permanent part of the Asiad since 1958, the Qatar Olympic Committee had to create a proper international playing facility. An artificial turf was laid in the Al Rayyan Sports Club next to the soccer stadium and the hockey ties in the Asian games involving India and Pakistan drew big crowds. Still, clouds again hovered over hockey. Not a year had passed and there were talks about removing the artificial hockey pitch from the Al Rayyan club.

Asian Champions Trophy -India & Pakistan line up before the final
Asian Champions Trophy -India & Pakistan line up before the final

“We made a request to the QOC, tells Mr Nazer, “Hockey is a new sport in the country and should be given a chance to develop”. The national Olympic committee agreed to retain the turf.” The real boost to the sport came via the office of a person no less than the ruler of the kingdom. Yes, in 2007, H.R.H. Hammad bin Khalifa Al Thani issued a directive which implied, “Why not hockey?” That changed everything. The king also asked the QOC to launch a hockey league in the country.

Mr Nazer assumes it was probably Sultan Azlan Shah who suggested the Qatari ruler to put hockey on strong footing in his country, “Our king had just returned from a visit to Malaysia when he expressed this desire about hockey. The league was duly started with four teams: Pakistan HC, Wanderers HC (mainly Indians), Doha HC (mainly West Europeans) and Gateway (a motley collection). Next, we wanted to provide some international action at home. An Indian/Pakistani tie at any level is bound to infuse great interest in Qatar.”

Asian Champions Trophy Final-Pakistan captain Imran receiving trophy
Asian Champions Trophy Final-Pakistan captain Imran receiving trophy

Two matches were arranged between the Pakistan International Airlines and the Air India. Both the teams were studded with a number of international stars and the games were attended by crowds of about 4,000; despite almost no publicity. First day, the Pakistani ambassador was the chief guest and for the next match it was the Indian ambassador. First encounter saw Indian school children’s band performing before the start and during the interval while the Pakistani kids displayed their talent the following day. “The huge success of this venture meant the QOC straight away doubled our grant and also promised more facilities.”

2009 was the landmark year in the gulf country’s hockey as the Qatar Hockey Federation was formed with Hassan Al Qadi, a Qatari, as the president and Mohamed Abdul Nazer, the secretary general.These two along with three other members constituted the five member executive committee. “The ball was now in our court. The QHF arranged a 2-match test series between Pakistan and Holland- first full international games in the country. The spectators numbering around 6,000 made the stadium look tiny; the series shocked Doha. “The success story spread and next year, the 2010 World Cup bound England hockey team had their preparatory camp here.”

Asian Champions Trophy Final-Goal Mouth Action
Asian Champions Trophy Final-Goal Mouth Action

Then there was the big challenge of raising the national team. In 2011, the QHF acquired the services of legendary Shahbaz Ahmed, the greatest hockey player of the 90s and another great Pakistani Tahir Zaman (also a 1994 World Cup winner). Talented lads were brought from Pakistan as well as India and Malaysia. Abdul Nazer himself was the first coach. Soon they acquired the services of Malaysian Shaiful Azli, a veteran of more than 150 internationals and the 2002 Asian games bronze medallist. He is presently assisted by the Egyptian Majid.

“The year just passed was really memorable and many of our cherished dreams got materialized. The national team was ready. We first tested our boys against Al Zooma, a top club of Sudan. Convincing wins in both the fixtures encouraged us and we thought of pitting the Qatari team against some national team. Fellow gulf country Oman has a long hockey history. They have competed in the Asian games and are ranked seventh in the continent. A two test home series titled the first gulf cup was arranged. 27 March 2013 would definitely go down as a historic day in the Qatari hockey as the national side lined up for the first ever international match. Our side was definitely the underdog and lost both the tests 2-4 but Qatar surprised everyone as they led at the half time in both the games.”

On the sidelines of the gulf cup, the former Pakistan captain Tahir Zaman conducted an FIH grade-2 course for the coaches. Next, a five test series was played against Brazil. 13th April turned out to be another good day as Qatar achieved their first ever international victory beating the favourites South Americans 3-2 in the first test. The victory was no fluke as the hosts pocketed the series three matches to one. Qatar had arrived on the international scene.

Asian Champions Trophy Final- both the sides had great support
Asian Champions Trophy Final- both the sides had great support

The dynamic QHF didn’t remain contended. They succeeded in getting the hosting rights to the FIH’s inaugural World League- with a format similar to the Davis Cup of tennis. The Qatar leg, staged from November 27 to December 2, had five teams in Azerbaijan, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Oman plus the hosts. Again, the baby of the international hockey performed beyond expectations, finishing second to Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, the failure of the QHF to submit the documents of some of their players in time led to their results being declared unofficial. However, this disqualification won’t stop them from playing in any other tournaments in future.

Aiming for 1000 feet- school kids get coaching
Aiming for 1000 feet- school kids get coaching

Kelly Fairweather, the CEO of FIH, visited Doha and had talks with the officials of QHF- a recognition of Qatar’s growing stature in the world of hockey. The end of the remarkable year saw the staging of the 2nd Asian Champions Trophy with the top six teams of the continent competing. The tournament was a huge success. Indians and Pakistanis turned up in large numbers especially for the two Indo/Pak ties, the league one and the final. In fact, the final, easily the biggest hockey fixture in the history of the country saw fans of the two arch rivals scrambling for the tickets and reportedly some paid 500 riyals to buy tickets with face value of only 10. The organisers had erected temporary stands to increase the seating capacity to more than 5,000 but even that proved insufficient. The spectators stood along the boundary of the sidelines while numerous tried to catch the action from the adjoining soccer stadium. Approximately 7,000 fans raising loud slogans made it an electric atmosphere and were duly treated to an excellent nerve wrecking encounter with Pakistan finally prevailing 5-4. It was heartening to see hundreds of local Qataris also enjoying the spectacle in the stadium.

There were steps forward in many directions. The Qatari league completed its fifth season and has now expanded to 12 teams. They compete in two divisions with six in each tier with two team relegation and promotion at the end of the season. One of the clubs, the Doha HC has three teams and interestingly one of them also has women players who play as part of the mix team.

Qatari national team celebrates a goal
Qatari national team celebrates a goal

The Johor hockey association team managed by Qatar’s national team coach, Malaysian Shaiful Azli with as many as seven national team players won the Presidents Cup in Malaysia defeating their first division champions Armed Forces in the final. A Qatari national team player Savio Nayak appeared in the German hockey league this year.

As for the future: The QHF has already unveiled plans to have a new stadium. Negotiations had been going on with the Qatar Olympic Committee for last few years. The tremendous success of the Asian Champions Trophy made the QOC give the go ahead for a 5,000-capacity facility to be built and a plot has been allocated in the Industrial Area of Doha. With the entire Al Rayyan Stadium set to undergo extension for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the earlier plans of QOC to renovate the already existing facilities have been put on the hold.

One of the biggest challenges facing Qatari hockey is to get more locals play the game. Only two Qataris wore the national shirt and just seven figured in the league 1 this year. There are many impeding factors. The small local population is one. Then affluence means almost every lad drives the latest model car once he gets the driving license, and boulevards take preference over the sports field. Other sports also face the same scenario- many who start don’t persist. The National Olympic Committee is investing a lot and even pays the boys to play sport.
Despite all this, the QHF is making all the efforts to attract more youngsters to hockey. Foremost is the project ‘Aiming for 1,000-feet’. It aims at distributing equipment to schools, sending FIH trained coaches and providing opportunity for students to utilize the hockey facilities at the Al Rayyan.

For the national team, the aims are high. They have been set an ambitious but achievable target- Road to Incheon. Considering the 2012 performance graph of the Qatari team, qualifying for the 2014 Asian Games in the South Korean city of Incheon is a very realistic objective.

The country’s hockey saga is really remarkable. The rapid strides made in the year gone-by in various spheres have put the tiny gulf nation on the map of the world hockey.

If the FIH had some sort of a yearly award for “The country making the greatest overall progress,” Qatar would have been the prime candidate for the year 2012.

Qatar – Potential Gold Mine for Hockey

Qatar is now a bona fide member of the international hockey playing fraternity and has also hosted high profile events. Qatari hockey has already started looking beyond.

The QHF plans to initiate and host two regional tournaments. The bilateral two test series played here last year between Qatar and Oman was titled the Gulf Cup. Now the federation wants to stage a ‘real’ Gulf Cup. To be held sometime late in 2013, this Gulf Cup would have teams from Qatar, Oman and UAE, the three regional countries who already have national sides. In addition, requests are being made to two resourceful gulf countries, Kuwait and Bahrain, to raise national hockey teams as they too have large expat communities from Indian and Pakistan as well as active hockey clubs. That means as many as five nations could be competing for the title of the Gulf Champions.

Discussions are also in progress to have the West Asia Cup in Qatar figuring the four countries of the region already active on the international scene: Oman, UAE, Qatar and Iran. That would make Qatar the hub of hockey in this part of the world.

But the highly ambitious QHF has loftier goals, and desires to do something revolutionary-   which could stun the world of hockey. Spadework is on for an Arab Hockey League on the pattern somewhat similar to cricket’s IPL (Indian Premier League). The proposed six team tournament won’t be confined to Qatar only as it envisages two sides each in Qatar, UAE and Oman. The team composition is what that would make the league really special. The local talent would form only one third of the squad with the remaining two thirds composed of international stars. Half of those overseas players would be big names of the world hockey while the rest chosen from the emerging juniors on the international horizon. The suggested selection process has another interesting aspect. The international players, seniors as well as juniors, in any team would all be from two countries. For instance, a Qatari team could have only German and Indian players apart from the locals. Likewise, Dutch and Pakistani players could form two thirds of an Omani side in this Arab Hockey League.

Qatar, world’s richest country, still remains largely an untapped market for international sports. The resourceful sponsors have been investing a lot in the local sports. A venture of the proportions of an Arab Hockey League that promises to give any mega business house such as the Qatar Petroleum a big international exposure would be hard to resist.

The whole idea seems a bit far-fetched but how many of us had ever thought of the tiny nation winning the hosting rights for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Hissam is an unsung hero

My feature published in Polo Times (world’s leading polo magazine) in its April 2011 issue

Pakistan may not be regarded as a major hub of the sport as compared to Argentina and England, but it boasts great polo tradition going back many centuries. And, in my opinion the game of kings is responsible for the country’s best sporting ambassador of today.

Far more famous than Pakistan’s recent polo achievements is the country’s ability to produce world-class sportsmen in squash, hockey and cricket. However the country has not come close to winning a global hockey title since 1994, has no players in the top 15 of the squash rankings and has not even finished in the top six in the last two Cricket World Cups.

This sorry state of affairs has been compounded in the last 12 months by the shameful match-fixing scandal involving three of the country’s most prominent cricket internationals.

Hissam. Whereever I am in the world, I never forget my Pakistan
Hissam. Whereever I am in the world, I never forget my Pakistan

Meanwhile, the country’s top handicapped polo player, five-goaler Hissam Ali Hyder, has been travelling the world playing in Argentina, England and most recently Dubai where he proudly displays the Pakistan flag on his horses.

His father and grandfather were both prominent polo players in Pakistan. Despite his success, the remains very much an unsung hero.

Hissam. Centre of Attraction. Royal Salute Gold Cup China 2008
Hissam. Centre of Attraction. Royal Salute Gold Cup China 2008

Cricketers Mohammad Aamer, Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif have tarnished the image of Pakistan. I think what we need is a few more Hissams.