“There is a lot more awareness now, in fact many of the top players in table tennis representing Pakistan are from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P),” says former national champion Umer Shehzad, as the youngster embarks on a journey to help the K-P government make 1,000 sports facilities now, even if he is not playing the game at the top level himself.
The 23-year-old has been impressive and he admits that he wants to see himself represent Pakistan internationally one day, but that day may need to wait so he could not give up on his studies.
The 2015 junior gold medallist and consequent silver medallist in the coming year feels it was a decision he had to make once he reached the top of the domestic level among juniors.
The crucial decision that was going to shape the next few years of his life was to continue playing table tennis full time or keep his heart and mind open to other possibilities through academics.
Shehzad’s decision, which he would eventually take, was deeply affected by the facilities and coaching available to the table tennis players in the country and especially in K-P, which were close to none at the time.
Shehzad believes that choosing his education, which led him to become a civil engineer, made more sense to him at the time.
“I still try to train for two hours each day. I want to represent Pakistan internationally,” Shehzad told The Express Tribune after his day on the field that he had spent on the facilities which are a part of the Directorate General Sports K-P’s efforts to finish 217 project in the next few months. It is the first phase of the 1,000 playing facilities project, out of which 116 have been completed.
“I had to step back from playing table tennis at the time because I realised that in Pakistan we do not have the coaches and the facilities that can help us catch up with the world.”
“My friends, including top players for Pakistan now, we all used to train here in Peshawar. Now three players out of the five, who went to the Asian Championship to represent Pakistan, are from K-P, and that is a change. There is a lot of passion for sports in the province, but many players are coming from K-P now. In fact we have private academies too, especially in Swat that will help in producing quality players.”
Shehzad mentions Muhammad Rameez, Shah Khan and Fahad Khawaja as exemplary talents from K-P, who he had played with and are now making the country proud. However, the question remains whether picking sports over other professions is a good choice, knowing fully well that the Pakistan Table Tennis Federation has limited resources to send the players abroad. Also, regular sponsorships are a must-have for professional athletes so that they can take part in international events.
“My friends chose table tennis and their hard work is paying back now, but in Pakistan the biggest problem that athletes face is that of the sponsorships. Then there are the departmental jobs that the top athletes get, but again that is not enough for them to take part in the international events individually around the year. There is always a dead-end that if the players get into the department, they may not get the sponsorships but if they are in the departments they get jobs. Meanwhile, the younger players in K-P do get assistance from the government fund and they do end up getting stipend if they are junior players,” explained Shehzad.
Shehzad is an astute young man now, who has come a long way. He has medals, including a silver and a bronze medal at the senior national championship, two gold medals in the national junior championship and a silver medal along with a gold in inter-broad championship, whereas two gold medals in the K-P U23 Games and further gold medals in K-P intervarsity and two more gold medals in inter-college events.
For the youngster, despite the lack of facilities in K-P or coaching, the love for table tennis began in 2010 when he first saw the top athletes compete in the National Games that took place in Peshawar at the Qayyum Stadium.
“I saw the games, I fell in love with table tennis and then it was not long that I started playing it. I was playing properly by 2011 and I started competing in events,” said Shehzad, however, mostly the players from K-P at this stage have been self-taught for the most part, learning the techniques by watching videos and tutorials online.
“We need quality coaches, coaches from abroad too on the national level who can train the players. We still look at the resources online to improve our techniques because of the absence of coaches,” said Shehzad.
Shehzad said that it is the equipment and the facilities that count too and for the most part the players have to struggle to attain quality gear as well.
He added that when he saw fellow athletes struggle, he aimed to make a mark in sports. Although he is trying to improve his skills in table tennis, he is hopeful that his service with the K-P government’s project will bring some comfort for the younger players.
The latest achievement for Shehzad and his partner Paras Ahmed, a fellow engineer who graduated with the degree in Peshawar last year, is the unveiling of a 52 feet climbing wall, a second one in K-P as a part of building 1,000 playing facilities in the province.
Shehzad is glad to be on board as a consultant through his engineering degree, but also as a sportsperson, which he feels can benefit the sports people in the province and the government too.
“I’m happy to be a part of this. At first I did my internship with the directorate and then we started working with them on the project. The most important insight I know I can bring is that of an athlete, while we are looking at these facilities. We can say if the lighting is good, if the halls are player-friendly in terms of the structure and amenities, all of this makes a lot of difference,” concluded Shehzad.