Ruling the roost
The man who brought thrills and hope
came back from the jaws of defeat to tame South Africa and set up a do
or die clash against Australia, their fans thought that the green shirts
were finally ready to live up to expectations.
enthralling 5-4 win over the African champions, Pakistan needed a
victory against the Aussies to reach their first Olympic hockey
semifinal since Sydney 2000.
As the Britons
celebrated their team’s most memorable Olympic showing of all time,
Pakistan’s campaign at London 2012 was completely centred around
hockey once again.
In the Pakistani camp
at the Athletes Village, the players and officials seemed to be exuding
confidence ahead of the big match. Hopes were high as they remembered
Pakistan’s stunning triumph over Australia in the final of a
three-nation tournament in Perth last year.
“We can do it,”
Khawaja Junaid, Pakistan’s coach, told me in London. “It’s a huge
game and we are ready for it,” he had stressed.
But it was all a case
of false bravado. And it was pretty evident for anybody who cared to
keep their ears and eyes open. All the confidence and determination in
the lead up to the must-win Pool A clash against Australia at the
Riverbank Arena in east London was just skin deep. Beyond that, it was
easy to see that everybody in the Pakistani camp — both the players
and officials — were getting mentally ready for a result that would
kick them out of the medals race.
Just minutes after
claiming that his team was ready for the Aussies, Junaid reminded me
about the ‘vast difference’ in the world rankings of Pakistan and
their superior opponents. “Though we are sure of ourselves you have to
keep in mind the fact that they (Australia) are the world number ones
while we are at eighth place in the rankings,” said Junaid, a former
Olympian. “The gap is just too big.”
It certainly was
because the Australians just toyed with Pakistan on their way to a 7-0
triumph that earned them a place in the last four. Pakistan, three-time
Olympic champions, were once again confined to minor classification
An Australian win
wasn’t an unexpected result but it was the way they thrashed the
Pakistanis that puts a huge question mark on the claims made by
Pakistan’s hockey chiefs that their team is on the right path in spite
of the London debacle.
unwise to rest your argument on the outcome of one single match but in
the case of that 7-0 hammering its difficult not to focus on it.
In many ways, that
defeat has underlined the fact that Pakistan still lag far behind teams
like Australia, Germany and Netherlands. It has also underlined the fact
that more than anywhere else the battle was lost in the mind even before
the umpire whistled for the game to begin. Just like so many so-called
‘big games’ Pakistan took the field against Australia severely
lacking in self-belief. And it wasn’t just a player problem. The team
management sitting on the benches had conceded defeat even before the
match began. For them, a ‘face-saving’ close loss against Aussies
would have sufficed. They were looking at a third-place finish in Pool A
something would have guaranteed a ‘top-six’ finish in the 12-nation
competition. That was the reason why the Pakistanis took a defensive
stance right from the word go and paid for it. Because the Aussies have
this bullyish streak in them that can only be tackled with
counterattacks, something that was so perfectly exhibited by the Germans
in the semifinals.
Pakistan tried to hold
fort but it was a lost cause as the Aussies kept attacking in waves and
scored goals at will. It was like shooting ducks in a barrel and one
wonders how the massacre stopped at 7-0 because the match could have
easily ended at something like 10-0.
The national team did
manage to finish as “Asia’s top team” after edging Korea in the
playoff for the seventh place but that was hardly any consolation. At
the Olympics, only the top-three positions really matter. The rest is
more of a formality than anything else.
London 2012 is over
now. Pakistan finished seventh there. They crashed to an embarrassing
eighth-place finish in Beijing four years ago. At that time there were
promises of a “much-better” show in London. I don’t think that
there has been any improvement because four years of hard work just went
down the drain in London. And one shouldn’t forget the expense
involved. In the last four years the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF)
has spent tens of millions of rupees on training, salaries and foreign
tours with most of the bills borne by tax-payers.
People at the helm of
national hockey affairs are now promising a “much-better” show at
the 2014 World Cup to be held in The Hague. They are also making similar
promises about the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
After all that one has
witnessed over the years in the world of Pakistan sports, its hard to
not be a skeptic. There have been too many hollow promises and false
hopes. But it shouldn’t be like that. There certainly are a lot of
promising hockey players in our country which means there is hope. We
have won Olympic hockey titles before and we can do it again. But for
that we will have to shed our defeatist approach. Then we have to root
out all the elements with vested interests because they are the ones who
have caused the most damage to Pakistan hockey. And what we need the
most is professionalism both among our players and officials.
The onus is now on
Qasim Zia, the PHF president. As a former Olympian who won a gold medal
at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Qasim knows how important hockey is
for Pakistan. He has so far failed to put hockey back on track which is
why Qasim is under pressure to resign in the wake of the London
disaster. However, he and fellow PHF officials are determined to stay
on. Several other former stalwarts are urging for heads to roll as they
gun for a new set-up that can put Pakistan hockey back on track.
Sweeping changes in Pakistan hockey can bring about positive changes but
only if the right people get the job. Otherwise Pakistan hockey will
remain mired in the same vicious circle and our team will also be
returning home empty-handed both from Netherlands and Brazil.
Khalid Hussain is
Editor Sports of The News, Karachi
have finally fallen on the 17-day sports extravaganza in London. The
Olympics 2012 reached its apex when the Ugandan distant runner Stephen
Kiprotich was crowned as the marathon king in front of a full house.
Kiprotich timed two
hours eight minutes and one second, leaving behind the defending world
champion Abel Kirui from Kenya, belying those experts who consider
booming national economy as one of the major factors for achieving
excellence in mega events.
Kiprotich has sent a
strong message to all those who were on a honeymoon trip to London at
the expense of public money, that despite all the science, nutrition and
exercise machines, there remains a simple formula for becoming an
Olympic champion. The winning athletes are just willing to work harder
than anyone else to reach their goal.
The Pakistani sports
godfathers must have some excuse to downplay the performance from the
neighbourhood, including Indian bronze medalist in women boxing Mary Kom,
and Afghan bronze medalist in taekwondo Rohullah Nikpai.
I know the sports
chiefs will point out lack of financial resources and unfavourable
security situation in the country to justify the losses.
Shakespeare once said,
“The enemy increases every day. We at the height are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men (and nations) which taken at the
flood leads on to fortune omitted. On such a full sea are we now afloat
and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.” I
think we missed that tide long ago in sports. This sounds a bit
pessimistic, but with the present system and the attitude, direction and
resolve it seems rather impossible to achieve any landmark, even at the
It is impossible
because of our own follies. The theme of London Olympics was
‘Inspiring the next generation’ and thus including the youth in the
process of nation building through sports.
The Olympic athletes
are not developed during a month-long camp as our sports chiefs tried to
do, but it takes years of dedication and hardwork with clear goals and
In Colorado Springs
the physiologists work very seriously on athletes for years on four
measureable components of fitness: VO2 max, lactate threshold, economy
of motion and maximum sustained output to produce Olympic and world
know that all human bodies are identical and have lungs, hearts and
switch and twitch muscles and maximizing their output is clearly a
feature of fitness. They have calculated the minutest difference between
gold medal glory and fourth place heart breaking story. Their goal is to
squeeze that critical one half of one percent out of their athletes.
delivers a small amount of additional oxygen to straining muscles or a
little less lactic acid and fitness account for it.
Fitness, as every
trainer says, is a function of pain. The fittest athletes have dialed up
their lactate thresholds through training designed to do just that.
The Olympic athletes
are not tuned to neharis and parathas in their diet but a very balanced
diet with measured calories programmed by qualified nutritionists and a
hectic training regimen under the watchful eyes of qualified coaches and
For instance the USA
women rowing team is in water at 0700 hrs daily in the morning. They row
for 10,000 meters to 12,000 meters for two hours followed by a brief
At 11 am they undergo
an hour of weight training, followed by lunch and rest. At 5 pm they are
back in the water for a two-hour, 8,000- meter row, working on technique
and power thus consuming 5,000 calories a day so that they can sleep
tight without wandering in the night clubs.
Are we ready to follow
such routines and willing to sacrifice the late night gossips and
wandering in markets?
Despite such hectic
physical fitness routines these athletes know that at Olympics physical
differences among top athletes are often microscopic. They know that
it’s the brain power that delivers gold. These athletes are trained
under the watchful eyes of qualified psychologists who use visualization
and focusing techniques because they know that elite athletes need gold
medal brains to operate their Olympian bodies.
pressure demands proper allocation of resources for which the cerebral
cortex must filter out the billions of distractions jumbled in brain,
thus leaving the body free to perform at its optimum.
It is very unfortunate
that sport does not figure any where in our national priorities.
Pakistan stands nowhere in the 302 Olympic titles handed over to eighty
five nations of the world.
We are happy that we
have finished seventh in men’s field hockey ahead of India that
finished twelfth and in the bottom of the hockey Olympic table.
With over twenty
million rupees spent on training of Olympic hockey team in the last one
year, the senior and ageing members of the team looked mentally chocked
against England and Australia.
The senior members
could not respond to the call of coach at the crucial moments of the
game because they have not learned to play according to a plan since
their school days.
Pakistani sports lords
should seriously look into the sport system of Gabon, Guatemala,
Montenegro, Afghanistan and Moldova who are one fourth of our
population, geographical size and economy and have managed to win at
least one or two Olympic medals with their limited resources.
I know that those
interested in taking over the system will ask the sitting officials to
resign. But no one will come out with any workable and practical
solution, and the entire episode will soon be forgotten, overridden by
the overwhelming cricket culture of the country.
The immediate solution
lies in establishing a National Institute of Sports Development or Sport
Sciences at the relatively high altitude in Abottabad.
Academy, various military training centers, boarding schools and School
of Physical Training and Mountain Warfare were established in the scenic
valley of Abottabad because of its suitable weather and appropriate
altitude suitable for developing endurance and physical fitness.
Most of the national
cricketers remember and praise the training camp that was organized in
Physical Training School Abottabad in 2007 for the preparation of T20
The time is right for
the government and IPCC to take up a case with the military authorities
in the best national interest and pool up their resources to upgrade the
existing School of Physical Training & Mountain Warfare into a
‘National Sport Development Centre’ somewhat on the lines of
Colorado Springs in USA.
This Centre may have a
wing for women and youth training at the adjacent location of Junior
Cadet Battalion where presently COMSATS institute is located.
In order to derive the
necessary results the said institute needs to be resourced, organised
and run efficiently by a team of professionals, for which it may be
associated with some reputable international institute of sports
development under a bilateral sport development programme.
We have precedents
before us in the conversion of Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology in
Rawalpindi into National Institute of Heart Diseases and National
Defence College into National Defence University.
These institutions can
thus act as breading and hunting grounds for trained and paid sports
scouts, who should be assigned the duty of picking the talented youth
for subsequent education and sports training at National Sport
Development Centre in Abottabad.
A few other roles can
also be assigned to this national sports centre, including the capacity
building and overseeing the functions of provincial coaching centers and
development of sports curriculum for different age groups.
Mother sports like
athletics and swimming should be the focus at this institute. If we set
our priorities right and make a sincere effort then it is very much
possible to produce boxers, wrestlers, weightlifters, and taekwondo,
judo, and archery players from this institute. Bangladesh and a few
other developing countries have recently embarked upon the similar
projects with a 10-year mandate to achieve tangible results.
I am sure that such a
step would help in arresting the decline of sports in Pakistan.
just last year, most experts rated Pakistan as a good limited-overs team
with below-par Test credentials. Some even thought that Pakistan were
just good enough for Twenty20 Internationals — the game’s fastest
But things seem to
have changed. Today, Pakistan are ranked number four in Tests just
behind South Africa, England and Australia and ahead of old rivals
India. But in One-day Internationals, they are trailing at number six
and have a similar ranking in ICC’s Twenty20 list.
It was in UAE early
this year that Pakistan managed to lift their Test fortunes with a 3-0
whitewash of England, then the world’s top-ranked Test team.
Now it’s time for
Misbah-ul-Haq and his troops to give a similar boost to their ODI and
T20 fortunes. The battleground remains the same when they take on
Australia in a limited-overs series in UAE starting later this month.
Misbah will be leading Pakistan in the three-match ODI series to be
played in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi from August 28 to September 4 while
Mohammad Hafeez will be at the helm for the three-match T20 series to be
hosted by Dubai from September 5-10.
The series against
Australia will provide Pakistan with an excellent opportunity to get
ready for the World Twenty20 championship to be played in Sri Lanka
during September-October this year. Pakistan have been bracketed with
New Zealand and Bangladesh in Group D and are seeded to progress to the
Super-Six stage after playing both their pool matches in Pallekele on
September 23 (New Zealand) and September 25 (Bangladesh).
At the moment,
Pakistan don’t seem to be in their element. Pakistan’s batting
remains as their Achilles heals, a fact that was evident during their
away series against Sri Lanka. But a bigger cause for concern for the
team management is that Pakistan’s bowling is going through a lean
phase. Umar Gul, who has been Pakistan’s pace spearhead in recent
times, was dropped for the UAE assignment due to poor form. Mohammad
Sami, who together with Gul is a part of Pakistan’s squad for the
World Twenty20, is also out of the one-day series against Australia.
Pakistan’s pace quartet for the one-dayers includes Sohail Tanvir,
Junaid Khan, Aizaz Cheema and Anwar Ali but it is quite clear that they
are mostly counting on their potent spin arsenal to counter the Aussies.
Pakistan have four spinners in their squad for the one-day series
including Saeed Ajmal, Abdul Rehman, Shahid Afridi and Mohammad Hafeez.
For the three Twenty20 Internationals, they will also have Shoaib Malik,
the former Pakistan captain who has loads of experience as an
In many a matches,
spinners have delivered the goods for Pakistan especially in the last
few years. At last year’s World Cup, their slow bowlers were
Pakistan’s biggest strength. Spin twins Ajmal and Rehman were the
major reasons why Pakistan thrashed England in the Test series early
this year. But the million-dollar question is whether Pakistan are
relying too much on their spinners? Some experts fear that they are.
They argue that Pakistan might have to struggle on tracks that won’t
offer much assistance to spinners. They may be right.
Pakistan will have to
find ways and means to bolster their pace attack. In the near future
they will be playing most of their cricket in UAE and Sri Lanka where
conditions tend to favour spinners but later on they will have to play
in different conditions where a balanced pace attack is a must. The
sooner they do it the better it will be for the national team.
tamed England by 51 runs at Lord's to win the three-match Test series
2-0 and claim the No 1 position in ICC Test ranking last week. Since the
rankings started, South Africa have occupied the No 2 spot more than any
other team. They were there when the system was first introduced in 2003
and have been in that position for 45 out of around 56 months.
England had been the
top team in the Test Championship table since August 2011 when they
England needed to win
the final Test in order to stay on top of the rankings as South Africa
had won the first Test at The Oval by an innings and 12 runs and the
second Test at Headingley ended in a draw.
The series loss ends
England's home record of seven consecutive series wins. Their last
defeat was also against South Africa, in 2008.
South Africa kept hosts England under pressure throughout the
series with their disciplined cricket in all departments of the game.
The last series was
England's worst home defeat since the 2001 Ashes series.
South African coach
Gary Kirsten must be a happy man as first under his coaching India won
the 2011 World Cup and now South Africa have claimed the first position
in the ICC Test ranking.
Kirsten has proved
himself a very good coach during the last few years. He taught the
Indian cricketers how to handle pressure, encouraging them to play
coolly and deliver their maximum.
After taking the
responsibility with the Proteas he again proved that his philosophy and
the way of coaching is better than others.
The South Africans
were not favourites when the series in England began but their
determination and hunger for win gave them the desired results.
During the first Test
at The Oval Hashim Amla became the first South African to score a triple
century (311), leaving behind AB de Villiers (278) against Pakistan in
Abu Dhabi in 2010.
But the unfortunate
part of the South African tour was the injury of wicket-keeper Mark
Boucher. The incident occurred when a ball from spinner Imran Tahir
clean-bowled Gamaal Hussain with Boucher stood up to the stumps without
The injury not only
ruled out Boucher from the tour but also ended his 15-year career.
Teams' current ICC
Test rankings: South Africa, England, Australia, Pakistan, India, Sri
Lanka, West Indies, New Zealand and Bangladesh.
It was always
“chik”, that sound from VVS Laxman’s bat when it met ball; a
gentle sound, barely audible, a pleasant meeting of two otherwise
antagonistic elements. And I often wondered if he would one day play a
shot that made no noise at all, as if there were no protest from the
ball. It was always like that, always “chik”, never the more
laboured, more demanding, “thok”. No, that was a sound for you and
me, for people who needed to muscle a ball, to discipline it.
Only once did I hear
him go “thok”, in an IPL game, when he was trying to heave a ball
over midwicket. He was throwing bat at ball, like a painter of fine
miniatures splashing colours, a sitarist playing the drums, a polite man
raising his voice. It wasn’t him. Laxman and the IPL were never
friends, and you could see why.
You could also see why
Laxman might have made a fine surgeon; gentle, precise incisions —
they might even have been painless — and a sense of calm around him.
Indeed, that was what it was thought he was meant to be, coming as he
did from a family of doctors. When his parents were told their son could
bat, when word began to spread that a kid was batting with a feather,
they let him find his calling. But when the schoolboy came home, there
was an earthworm laid out to be dissected on one of those trays biology
students will recognise. He had missed school and his education was
Early in his career
Laxman was the strokeplayer, revelling against pace, standing up to
punch deliciously through cover, or merely pausing in the midst of what
others might have called an off-drive, or even pulling through
midwicket. He did all that in an astonishing innings in Sydney a few
days after the fireworks had announced the end of a millennium. It was
one of the finest innings I have seen played against fast bowling: 167
out of 261, against McGrath, Fleming, Lee and Warne, with 27 boundaries.
The SCG might have
made him feel at home, and it invariably did, but it had to take second
place in his career to Eden Gardens, where he averaged 110 from ten
Tests (at the SCG, a relatively more modest 78 with three centuries from
four Tests). He made five centuries in Kolkata, none more celebrated
than that 281, but there was another innings that was to announce the
arrival of a man so light on his feet that he seemed to skip towards
wherever the ball was pitched.
It was March 1998 and
Laxman opened the batting with Navjot Sidhu (wouldn’t that have been a
priceless mid-wicket conversation!). He made 95 but that was the first
time you saw him dance out to Shane Warne and play against the turn
through midwicket; or rather against some perceived turn, because he was
right where the ball pitched. And then, as if to pay obeisance to an old
art, he hit the same ball inside-out through cover occasionally. It was
as thrilling a display of batsmanship against spin as any you will see;
a sneak preview, maybe, of what was to come three years later, when he
played not just the finest but the grandest Test innings by an Indian.
It was inevitable,
then, to compare him to that other great Hyderabad batsman, Mohammad
Azharuddin. You could see they came from the same school of batsmanship
— wrists so supple and obedient that they diverted the ball into crazy
spaces just when it seemed it was sniffing at the stumps. Their records
aren’t dissimilar. Azhar averaged 45.03 from 99 Tests to Laxman’s
45.97 from 134. Azhar had 22 centuries and 21 fifties, an amazing
conversion, compared to Laxman’s 17 centuries and 56 fifties. Once he
vacated No. 3 early in his career, Azhar batted at No. 5, which is
around where Laxman gravitated to. But Azhar remained the athlete
throughout, always light on his feet, whereas Laxman grew a little
heavier and tended to, as Aakash Chopra recently pointed out, reach for
the ball with his hands in the latter half of his career. Both were
remarkably delicate of touch, though Laxman handled pace, and
specifically bounce, significantly better.
And until the world of
glamour and high-street labels entrapped Azhar, they were very similar
people: warm, generous, god-fearing and extraordinarily humble.
Hyderabad was like that in the ‘80s and early ‘90s; an unhurried
city where commerce had merely a bit role, where people spent hours in
each other’s company and hugged warmly. In August 2012, when Laxman
announced his retirement, it was done with the dignity of a man
unchanged by commerce and opportunity, who continued to give freely. It
was, if I may be permitted a bit of indulgence, Hyderabad as it used to
By 2001, Azhar had
gone, in the kind of cinematic twist that nobody who saw him as a young
man could have imagined. India needed reassurance, for the fan was hurt
and felt cheated. A group came together then, a strong confluence of
character, and shepherded India through. Sachin Tendulkar was the
senior-most, only marginally so over Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath;
Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, so similar in culture and upbringing, were
finding their feet; and at the helm was Sourav Ganguly, a little more
brash but his heart belonged to India. It was against this backdrop that
the 281 was scored. On the 14th of March, two men of great pedigree put
on 335 without being separated. India won the next day, when a callow
Sikh took six wickets. India re-embraced cricket, and the shyest of that
amazing group of cricketers was centre-stage.
The 281 was followed
by spectacular cameos, and it wasn’t till Australia again, in 2003,
that he rediscovered his best. In December he made 148 in a memorable
win in Adelaide, and then Sydney welcomed him again. On the 3rd of
January 2004, he made 178. Then in coloured clothing but with similar
finesse, he made 103 not out on the 18th, and 106 on the 22nd, both
against Australia, and on the 24th he made 131 against Zimbabwe. That
was his peak. To merely watch was to be aware that we were in the
presence of rare beauty.
He never batted like
that again, except maybe for the customary century in Sydney in 2008,
when he made 109. The new Laxman was less thrilling, more restrained. In
his last 51 Tests he averaged 51.36 compared to a career average of
45.97. He was more solid, more dependable; the lightness of touch was
still there, the dignity unwavering, but he wasn’t the fencer anymore;
he didn’t dart towards the ball. Instead, he waited for it, played
more from his crease. Where you were on the edge of your seat before,
you now sat more calmly. Indeed, he now brought hope where he had dealt
And thus he played out
his career, the moving ball posing more problems towards the end. It is
inevitable, for the faculties must dim. The yearning for the touch, the
lightness of execution, grew. Occasionally the ball would still kiss the
blade fleetingly and vanish to the boundary, as a reminder of the artist
we had in our midst. In India, where he recognised every accent, every
idiom a ball could come up with, he could have given himself another
year. He really did want to beat England and Australia again.
But it wasn’t to be.
A man of deep faith and integrity said he listened to an inner divine
voice that told him the time had come. And we must believe him, for this
is not the time to search for conspiracy. A career of a wonderful man
and outstanding batsman is now behind us and it has left us with many
memories to savour.
Laxman had something
every cricketer dreams of: respect in his dressing room and in those of
his opponents. And the opportunity to leave our game richer.
It’s been a mighty
fine innings. —Cricinfo