Greenshirts cross the dreaded red line

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Playing with fire or playing the fool?

 

Pakistan hockey is dying, or has gone into a deep coma. Who killed it? Not Robin Redbreast! The rot had set in long ago with the advent of artificial turf, the super fit European sides distinguished by set-piece moves of clockwork precision, and the chopping and changing of the game’s rules to hasten the demise of the aesthetic classical style of Asian hockey, with its unmarked individual brilliance and skills, so pleasing to the spectators. However, the decisive causes of its expiry, spread over the past eight years or so, are two presidents, one of the Federation of Pakistan, the other of the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF), two secretaries, both of the latter body, and a prime minister, the patron in chief who callously ignored the ‘bootless’ cries of the hockey players until it was too late. The full extent of the embarrassing ‘financial dehydration’ faced by the players was made known in an emotional manner by the greenshirts’ skipper on his return from the disastrous World Hockey League in Belgium. It is a damning indictment of the government and well as of the PHF. As the saying goes, an army cannot fight on an empty stomach. One day soon one hopes there will be a reckoning with all those responsible for the fall of Pakistan hockey in this manner.

So, Pakistan hockey is off the global radar grid at least for the near future. The unlucky loss of that crucial penalty shoot-out against India in the 2014 Asian Games final at Incheon left the greenshirts reliant on the World Hockey League to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics. But sadly, it was not to be after a most pathetic exhibition of hockey, which, if it had happened in the Soviet Union of the Cold War, especially against the hated capitalist USA, would have seen all the officials and players banished to Siberia, and even ‘beyond’. The agonising reality is that Pakistan hockey has been cast out from an Olympiad for the first time since 1948, after previously failing to make the grade for the 2014 World Cup tournament too. O! What a fall this is, from ruling over the game just two decades ago to this final humiliation of being unable even to meet the eligibility conditions of the two most prestigious hockey events. Pakistan has acquired a ‘loser’ image in world hockey and become a synonym for defeat, mediocrity and failure. It is now the Sick Man of global hockey and it’s incorrigible and confirmed Pauper. It has reached its nadir.

The blame for the hockey bungee record free fall must rest squarely with the previous and present rulers and the system of patronage so popular with them. In keeping with their ‘vision’ in the political sphere, the sporting field is also a playground to reward party cronies, yes men, rich school friends and other dubious hangers-on, and with an understanding to scoop up all the dough while they can. During the past regime, the president of Pakistan was the patron-in-chief of the PHF. He appointed a prominent former Olympian, but one who was also a stalwart of his party, as the PHF chief and there being no check on a person of such ‘immaculate’ connections, much of the funds granted to the Federation reportedly melted away. The accounts of this period are being audited by the government.

The mantle of chief patron of hockey has since been worn by the current prime minister, and a few months after his electoral victory in 2013, a former provincial minister belonging to his party and a once close friend (also a former Olympian) was ‘elected’ unopposed as PHF president in what many leading ex-Olympians condemned as a bogus election. This gentleman had resigned only two months earlier as the chief coach, for under his watch the greenshirts (winners of the most World Cup titles) had failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup after an appalling display in the 2010 edition. So the resignation in September 2013 actually preceded a reward in November 2014, and the results of not wringing the necessary changes and persisting with the same familiar and failed faces are evident today.

The prime minister is also the patron of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), and his choice of its chairman (now heading its Executive Committee) was also a most controversial and unlikely, indeed unfortunate, one

The prime minister is also the patron of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), and his choice of its chairman (now heading its Executive Committee) was also a most controversial and unlikely, indeed unfortunate, one. It is not surprising that Pakistan cricket also faces a hockey-like situation: it has to beat Sri Lanka in the ongoing series in the One Day Internationals to qualify for the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy in England. The system of patronage in sports has reaped a bitter harvest. By contentious appointments Pakistan hockey and cricket are gradually being taken out of the international arena, as if by a deliberate design.

The numerous public corporations and semi-autonomous bodies are also responsible for the rot in hockey. Earlier these bodies acted as employment agencies for the hockey players, guaranteeing a secure, well paid job and a reasonable status in society. But when hockey became a losing proposition, the potential employers and sponsors did an about turn. Ever since they stopped hiring hockey sportsmen, these white elephant organisations, which spend millions on their top executives, are loath a pay a paltry (by comparison) amount on grooming the future stars, some of whom might bring more publicity for the country and their company than all the chairmen and CEOs combined.

And so it came to pass that the PHF, due to paucity of funds and power politics started missing out on important international tournaments, such as the Azlan Shah and the last Commonwealth Games, the latter thanks to a dispute within the Pakistan Olympic Association, whose head, a retired lieutenant general, has been in the saddle (with precious little to show for it in the medals table) apparently as long as Intikhab Alam has been employed in the PCB. And that takes us back to the Middle Ages!

But cash-strapped the PHF was, is and will no doubt continue to remain, if the ‘slight, unmeritable’ men scraped from the bottom of the barrel are unerringly chosen to manage affairs. These gentlemen, because they bend and fawn before the powerful, remain untouchable for their personal extravagances, their joy-rides abroad with families in tow and lodging in five star hotels. The grim other side of the picture is that the national players in the recent World Hockey League received a laughable daily allowance of twenty dollars each. With no permanent jobs and all these financial storms raging around them, can one honestly expect the players to be motivated enough to give of their best and fight to the last against international sides provided with superlative ground and training facilities and flush with cash? The latest extremely worrying news is that our hockey under-21 team has also been forced to abandon its tour of Holland, where it was to meet India in the first match this past week. This is criminal negligence, as the very future of our hockey is at stake. Something really must be done about maintaining cash flow to the PHF, at least for important international events.

Now to the little the matter of resignations, or lack of them, after the great hockey tragedy. These ought to have come thick and fast, with all the incumbent officials associated with the downfall and some of the ‘old maids’ players remorsefully calling it a day. But so far, only the chief selector and his committee colleagues have formally announced their resignations, while those of the captain and chief coach remain a bit of a mystery so far.

Ought not the tardy and seemingly unconcerned chief patron to have called for their immediate resignations, one and all? He has finally bestirred himself from his deep Rip Van Winkle slumber and angrily ‘taken notice’ of the disaster, much after the event, as is his wont. A five member committee has been nominated to submit its findings within a week. The hockey catastrophe was unfolding in slow motion over a considerable period, but he apparently remained deaf, dumb and blind to all the danger signs, to the many distressing stories being aired by the media. Over the last six months he first set up and at the last moment cancelled many meetings with the already demoralised hockey players, who could have enlightened him on the true state of affairs in the sport. He must also have heard that some of the hockey squad’s foreign tours were reportedly being financed by a real estate tycoon and a private firm of Karachi. But neither national pride nor a personal pity moved him to action. It goes without saying that when the rulers’ own official visits abroad (which yield nothing) and personal comforts are concerned, they are as a rule easily satisfied with the very best! Only a fraction of what they and the bureaucrats waste on frivolous foreign tours and on their Byzantine revels( not to talk of their commissions, kickbacks, bank loan defaults and myriad other dubious money spinning ventures), can fill the coffers of the PHF for years.

The prime minister, as an essential first step towards reversing the hockey and cricket decline, must surrender his posts as chief patron of both sports to full time deserving professionals recommended by a panel of experts from the sporting, media and corporate worlds. Merely making a show of being ‘concerned’ and calling for a report on the Belgium fiasco is too little, too late. One also wonders how at all he can find any time to spare from the excessive and hectic workload (of his four and a half days working week!) for monitoring the national sport as well as cricket, in which too, apart from an occasional success or two, Pakistan is hitting new lows.

Then again, where are the hockey fans, still in their hundreds of thousands despite all the defeats, and why aren’t they protesting on the roads and before the PHF offices calling for heads to roll (metaphorically, for the moment!)

This mindset of jealously retaining all lucrative posts of patronage and spoils under one’s belt, especially of these two leading sports with emotional underpinnings for the fans, needs to be changed fast, if there is to be hope of any betterment. The talent is there, loads of it, only needing leadership of integrity and dedication. Professional hockey today is epitomised by the rich European clubs and their Leagues, which pay good money to top players from round the world, including Pakistan, and enable them to further hone and sharpen their skills. The Indians, with their coffers full, have also lured the big names to rub shoulders with their top provincial sides in the Indian Hockey League and the results are there for all to see, especially in the fleetness and dexterity of the Indian forward line and in its finishing.

And here we are, still languishing in the Stone Age of patronage and of all spoils to the victors and their cronies.

Then again, where are the hockey fans, still in their hundreds of thousands despite all the defeats, and why aren’t they protesting on the roads and before the PHF offices calling for heads to roll (metaphorically, for the moment!). When France lost the fifth place encounter against Malaysia and were knocked out of the Rio running, some of their players wept openly. Such emotions were nowhere to be seen in the once mighty team that had suffered a far greater loss, akin to a national tragedy.

And now a digression from depressing politics and sports (the two are one, depressing that is!). Taking personal responsibility for a failure or a dishonour by resigning is an accepted notion in a civilised people and a truly democratic polity. But in our society, which to be honest is in reality neither of these two things, this issue of resignation, of voluntarily standing down, has never taken root. Resignation is a word that our opportunist elite and mercantile politicians dread as much as death itself. The Japanese and the Koreans have an endearing tradition of bowing repeatedly in contrition and apology for an indiscretion (before being carted off to prison). The Japanese practice of committing ritual hari kari was exemplified by their air force commander, who after Japan’s surrender in 1945 felt that he had dishonoured the Emperor and disembowelled himself. The British upper classes (and their services) at one time had their own style of crushing a social scandal or some immoral behaviour. The person who had acted in an ungentlemanly manner was left alone in a room with a loaded revolver and a bottle of whiskey, the meaning being obvious to every unfortunate Old Etonian and Harrovian! Even the ancients had a much clearer conception of personal honour. A defeated Roman general or politician threw himself on his sword rather than be captured and suffer humiliation at the hands of the victors. The Chinese emperors committed suicide when all was lost by swallowing gold leaf. Even Portia, the wife of the Roman politician and general Brutus, according to the Greek historian Plutarch, took ‘hot burning coals and cast them in her mouth so close that she choked herself’. This for the reason that ‘Impatient of my (Brutus’) absence, and grief that young Octavius with Mark Antony, have made themselves so strong, with this she fell distract… And her attendants absent, swallowed fire…’ And later on Brutus, defeated at Philippi and with his friend and ally Cassius slain, remarks in response to a friend’s exhortation not to tarry but to fly from the field of battle, ‘We must fly indeed, but it must be with our hands, not with our feet’. And Plutarch adds, ‘Strato… with whom Brutus came first acquainted by the study of rhetoric (at his request) held the sword in his hand and turned his head aside, and that Brutus fell down upon it, and so ran himself through and died presently’.

Hypothetically, if given an option on all these grim ‘emergency exits’, one can readily guess which one would be preferred unanimous choice of our pleasure-loving elite, but though the whisky bottle would be found empty after half an hour, the expected revolver shot would never ring out, as befits, in the words of the abrasive Evelyn Waugh, ‘bounders and cads’. Without the option, the most apt and well deserved fate for them would be that of the unfortunate Portia: swallowing fire, a bit different from their usual irritating habits of playing with fire or playing the fool!