Fourteen years is a long time for a nation to bring along a number of changes but for Pakistan sport, particularly hockey, time seemed to have stood still since 2004.
The Last time an international tournament of repute was held in Pakistan — was back in 2004, when they hosted the Champions Trophy — and top international teams visited their land.
But come Thursday, January 18, and Pakistan will be ready to turn a new page in its sporting history when a number of top hockey stars from across the world will arrive to play two exhibition matches against Pakistan’s junior team in Karachi (January 19) and Lahore (January 21).
It is unthinkable, and almost unbelievable, that the current generation of hockey players in Pakistan have not played a single international match in front of their home crowd. It is no secret that players thrive on home support — it is the unofficial 12th man in most games — and the growing generation of Pakistan are yet to taste that support.
Says Pakistan’s former goalkeeper Salman Akbar, “There is an entire new generation of Pakistan players who have no experience or idea of what it is to play for the country in front of their fans. Similarly, young Pakistan fans too have only seen their heroes on TV.
“We are a sport-loving country. People of the country are waiting to see their teams play against the world’s best in the stadiums, and it has hurt us as a sporting nation.
“I would like to appeal to the powers in Pakistan to look into the situation and see what can be done to ensure that countries find it safe to visit us once again.”
It was not always like that, Pakistan was once a flourishing ground for foreign teams and where key events took place regularly.
Indian cricketer Virender Sehwag hit his famous triple hundred in Multan in 2004, a Test match that was followed by millions on TV and a jam-packed stadium in Pakistan.
But then came 2009, and it all changed. The year saw something that even the most ardent fans could not think of.
The visiting Sri Lankan cricket team’s bus was attacked by militants, eight people were killed and the terrorized Lankan players were flown back in a helicopter in a crisis-like situation, in the middle of the series.
The scars of those days might have been forgotten by the Sri Lanka team members who saw bullets hit their bus’ window panes as they ducked under the seats to save their lives; but the damage that it did for sport in Pakistan left its mark, almost permanently.
Pakistan have not hosted international cricket since then — there was a short series involving Zimbabwe in Lahore in 2015, a first after many years — and it effected their sport immensely. The annual bilateral hockey series too was halted, with only occasional club teams travelling to the country.
A hotbed for talent, be it hockey, cricket or any other sport, Pakistan has thrown up jewels in international sport. Their achievements have been unparalleled and their highs an inspiration for future generation.
In hockey, Pakistan ranks among the most successful nation in the World Cup history having won four titles, a feat yet to be achieved by any other country. In Olympics, they have three golds, three silver and two bronze.
Interestingly, they have also witnessed success at international competitions in different sport in the last few years — the cricket team lifted the 2009 World T20 Championship, the women’s cricket team won a gold at the 2014 Asian Games while the men’s hockey team clinched a silver — and they would want to build on that.
The World XI series has come as a ray of hope. Pakistan Hockey Federation secretary Shahbaz Ahmed Senior, a decorated player of his time, says he is “very hopeful” that this will help bring more matches to the country.
“We are doing our best and this series is a step to bring those days of glory back to Pakistan. A lot of big names are coming to Pakistan and the public will get to see them face to face. It is an event that many will remember,” Shahbaz said.
Pakistan is ready to welcome the world with open arms.