For Western onlookers, Pakistan’s loss to Afghanistan in the CWC might be dismissed as “Pakistan being Pakistan,” with jests about which version of the team will show up against South Africa. However, while cricket draws the most attention, the just-concluded Asian Games in Hangzhou have unveiled more profound issues that extend beyond cricket and permeate various sports in Pakistan.
Around three decades ago, Pakistan was a dominant force on the global stage in four sports:
cricket, hockey, squash, and amateur snooker. However, in the present day, their presence has significantly dwindled.
Recent weeks, or more aptly, the entire month, have left many feeling disoriented. This disorientation doesn’t stem solely from the Netherlands defeating South Africa or Afghanistan’s unexpected triumphs over England and Pakistan in CWC2023. It’s primarily rooted in the perplexing decline of India’s once-potent subcontinental sporting rival. Pakistan has transitioned from being formidable competitors to enigmatic underachievers, faltering in disciplines where they were formerly spirited contenders at the highest echelons.
For Western observers, Pakistan’s loss to Afghanistan in the CWC might be brushed off as “Pakistan being Pakistan,” with humorous remarks about which version of the team will face South Africa. However, while cricket garners the most attention, the just-concluded Asian Games in Hangzhou have revealed more profound issues that extend beyond cricket and affect various sports in Pakistan.
The defeat to Afghanistan seems to mark the nadir of Pakistan’s sports journey. It’s not just about the outcome but the absence of that intangible, distinctive quality that defined Pakistan’s athletes – something akin to “ruuh” in Urdu, signifying spirit or essence. Their unyielding competitive spirit.
Pakistan’s hockey team last participated in the Olympics back in London 2012.
In squash, their highest-ranked player is world number 45, Shahjahan Khan, who was notably absent from the Asian Games squad in Hangzhou, where the men’s team lost the final to India.
For anyone who followed Pakistan’s sporting glory across multiple disciplines, this rapid descent is nothing short of bewildering.
It borders on the baffling until you hear insights from those with an insider’s perspective.
Pakistani journalist Shahid Hashmi, who is currently covering the World Cup for the news agency AFP, remarked that he had not witnessed such a “helpless and clueless” Pakistan team as the one facing Afghanistan. He goes on to suggest that the team’s situation in the Cup today is a broader reflection of the country’s state.
He remarks, “Our economy is in a state of disarray, and we find ourselves seeking financial aid from external sources. Now, we’re in a position where we’re essentially asking for assistance from other teams – like the Netherlands and Sri Lanka – to upset Afghanistan and Bangladesh in the World Cup, granting us a chance to advance to the semi-finals. It’s akin to our approach in 1992.”
Expressing criticism of Babar Azam’s leadership as captain, he asserts that Pakistan’s cricket, much like the country itself, suffers from a leadership void. According to Hashmi, the PCB is set to witness yet another change at the helm next month, with Zaka Ashraf slated for yet another departure, marking the fourth Board chairman in a single year.
Rasheed Shakoor, a seasoned multi-sport journalist who has observed Pakistan’s sporting landscape for over four decades, attributes their decline to the presence of “dirty politics and unwarranted government influence.” It is widely known that the PCB’s constitution allows for political intervention, with the country’s prime minister currently responsible for appointing its chairman.
The government in power appoints individuals of its choice, and this decision has a cascading impact down the hierarchy,” Shakoor emphasizes.
He points out that the head of the Pakistan Air Force also serves as the de facto president of the squash federation. Given the demands of his primary role, it’s often the lower-level officials who wield the most control. Consequently, Pakistan’s squash enthusiasts and families have been left to manage things independently.
Shakoor explains, “The federation’s role is quite limited, and even when they attempt to train young players, the approach is outdated, lacking a modern training system, and suffering from a shortage of talent in the pool.” Around the turn of the millennium, as he witnessed Jansher Khan grapple with knee and back injuries, Shakoor’s outlook was pessimistic.
He felt that Pakistan’s era of squash dominance was ending, with no viable successor in sight, and if one did emerge, it would likely be a rare occurrence, happening only once in a decade or more.
However, in July of the current year, Hamza Khan broke the 37-year dry spell to become the first Pakistani to win the Junior World championship.
Shakoor’s harshest critique is directed at the leadership of the Pakistani Hockey Federation and its officials who have earned Olympic medals. Despite receiving substantial annual grants, Pakistan hockey has not seen the money effectively invested in development. According to him, many of these Olympians prioritized their personal interests, ultimately contributing to the decline of Pakistan’s hockey. Shakoor holds a number of prominent Olympic medalists, including Akhtar Rasool, Qasim Zia, Asif Bajwa, Rana Mujahid, and Shahbaz Ahmed, responsible for allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement.
The deterioration of Pakistan’s sporting prowess, as highlighted by Karachi-based writer Ahmer Naqvi, must be viewed in the context of broader changes in the world of sports.
This decline coincided with the evolving nature of sports itself, while the country’s economy struggled to keep up with the shifting dynamics.
According to Naqvi, the mid-1990s, often seen as the zenith of athletic achievement, actually marked the conclusion of a previous era. During this period, state-backed support for sports and nurturing talent to achieve excellence on the global stage was prevalent. However, with the opening of Pakistan’s economy in the 1990s, the established state patronage system was disrupted by the emergence of a new free market.
Despite the popularity of cricket and hockey, Pakistan’s economic scale made it challenging to attain the necessary commercial leverage to elevate the status of sports. Naqvi observes that while India adeptly transitioned into a cricket-centric economy during its economic transformation, Pakistan’s economic landscape remained more precarious. Even with foreign aid during the Musharraf era of economic growth, the market struggled to take on the role of a primary fundraiser and generator, even for cricket. He highlights that the Pakistan Super League, although widely watched, faces limitations due to the country’s fragile economy, hindering its potential expansion.
Several factors have contributed to the decline of sports in Pakistan.
The diminishing presence of sports in schools, the proliferation of private schools lacking sports facilities, and the inadequacy of resources in the market to elevate the popularity of snooker from its numerous dens to a professional structure all play a role. This decline is attributed to a confluence of factors, and it unfolded during a period when sports itself evolved from various forms of patronage to becoming a purely commercial enterprise, leaving Pakistan unprepared for the transition.
As India appears to be entering one of its most promising eras in sports, it’s important for Indians to take an interest in what’s happening across the border. This interest can serve as a lesson in recognizing the perils of mismanagement in sports. It also allows us to see beyond the hyperbole surrounding the ‘Indo-Pak rivalry and the social media and TV frenzy. It’s not a genuine rivalry or contest, but rather, it has devolved into a farcical spectacle when our rival, in this case, steps onto the field with their shoelaces tied together. What’s being witnessed is not a genuine rivalry but a charade.
Unlocking the Turmoil: Investigating the Predicament of Sports in Pakistan‘s Sporting Landscape.