Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hockey in the land of Mongols (I)

By Zakir Hussain Syed

As a student of history, I have been fascinated by various events including the westward march of the Mongols and the Tatars when they swept everything that came their way leaving behind a trail of unparalleled destruction and savagery until they reached what is now called modern Beirut. In a small valley near Beirut lived a tribe called the ‘Druz’.

The elders of this tribe begged the Tatars not to attack their homes as they were basically very poor and had no hidden wealth. The Tatar commander refused and led his army into the valley which was the habitat of this tribe. For the first time since the beginning of their westward march, the Tatars were defeated and suffered heavy casualties. When this news reached Mongolia and conveyed to the Emperor, he was so shocked and upset that he had the messenger beheaded.

This Druz tribe is the same that in recent times defeated the Israeli forces during the conflict in Beirut a few years back. Their conviction is their strength but more importantly, they are not afraid to die which makes them one of the most fearless fighters of modern times. When the Asian Hockey Federation (AHF) announced the holding of 1st Men’s Asian Hockey Championship and the 2nd Women’s Asian Hockey Championship in Ordos, the home of Mongols in upper Mongolia, it immediately aroused my interest.

It has a population of around two million and is one of the largest cities in the inner Mongolia autonomous region of China. The name Ordos comes from local language that refers to “Guardian of the Tent.” It lies in the southern part of the region and is embraced by Yellow river that is often referred to as the cradle of Chinese civilization. When Emperor Genghis Khan and his family moved westward across Ordos, he was so deeply impressed by the peace and beauty of this land that he decided to be buried here after his death. Although, his last earthly habitation is still one of the biggest mysteries in human history, his soul is believed to be attached to white camel hair and buried in the silver coffin underneath the Genghis Mausoleum in Ordos.

However, what intrigued me more than the historical perspective of Ordos inner Mongolia, was the tradition of hockey in that region. According to China HA/Cultural China: “Inner Mongolia is the birth place of the ancient game of Boical as hockey was then called in China. Boical was played since more than 1400 years ago in that region. Scribes of the Tang dynasty (618-907) had written of a popular game called ‘ball game on foot’ among the Qidans, and it flourished during the Khitan Empire (907-112500) that covered Manchuria, Mongolia and parts of northern China. The hockey stick of the traditional Daur game was made by grinding and polishing fine oak wood from trees with crooked roots and straight trunks. There were several types of balls – wooden, hairy and fiery ones with bone balls occasionally used. Wooden balls were made of polished oak tree wood, hairy balls were made of twisted threads of domestic and wild animal hair and fiery balls were made of hardened white fungi on birch trees. The hairy ball, made for night matches, was hollow inside with several holes on the hard shell and a pine torch was placed within. The ball remained lighted after the torch was ignited. But as time went on, the game was almost lost among other ethnic groups of China than the Daur ethnic minority. In 1974,the first men’s hockey team in modern China was founded in the same region.”

That is where late Brig Manzoor Hussain Atif and myself stepped into the picture. The Chinese government had gone out of the way to commit the construction of Sports Complex in Islamabad despite our inability to host the 1978 Asian Games which had been allotted to us. We invited a batch of six Chinese to train them in the art of hockey coaching. I still remember my welcome speech to these coaches. “When the cat teaches the leopard tricks of trade, it does not teach him how to climb the tree to ensure its own safety. I promise you gentlemen, that we shall teach you even that trick.”

Late Sheikh Rehmaullah and Nabi Kalat were initially assigned to coach them followed by Nabi Kalat’s coaching assignment in China. This step was then followed by an unparalleled sports exchanges with China, a level that has never been reached again.

To Be Concluded

(Zakir Hussain Syed is Pakistan’s internationally renowned sports administrator, sports broadcaster and sports analyst)