By AZ Aamir
Hailing from Bara Bandai, a village in Swat, Pakistan volleyball team skipper Aimal Khan has been doing a great job for the country. He is not only popular in Pakistan’s volleyball circle but in the Middle East and Iran also because of his superb exploits.
Formerly inclined towards badminton and cricket in school days an All Pakistan event at his village turned around the things and he started volleyball after being convinced by his well-wishers because of his height. He was also inspired by the PAF players who featured in that event in his village in 2005. The 2009 was a sad year for Aimal as he lost his two uncles and his friend and volleyball player Aftab who all were martyred by the Taliban. His own father Mohammad Iqbal also survived a Taliban attack. Aimal, the same year, also lost his maternal uncle.
Now ask Aimal and he will tell you how he rose to limelight and then strengthened his position as a spiker in international circuit.
“In initial days I used to play badminton at school and cricket with cousins on streets,” Aimal told thecricketplus.com in an interview.
“I belong to volleyball family. Barring my father Mohammad Iqbal, who spent 20 years in Kuwait, all my uncles, cousins and brothers were volleyball players. My uncles would organise volleyball events regularly at our village ground which has a forty-year history,” Aimal said.
“In 2005 an All Pakistan event was organised here in which PAF had also featured. On that occasion the father of Riaz, a volleyball player, told my uncle that Aimal had a good height and should start volleyball. And since then I started volleyball,” Aimal recalled.
“My younger uncle Riaz Khan, who is now in London, was a good player and had also been offered by Navy during his academic career at Karachi. My maternal uncle, who is now in the US, was a gutsy player.
We all have good height. Hidayat Ali, my uncle, who is in IB, was also a good player. My brother, who is now in London, had also been offered. But the issue is that most of them could not play on top level because of their other engagements. Most of our family members are now in London and US,” he said.
“In 2005 I saw an indoor hall for the first time when I went to attend trials in Peshawar with my cousin Noor Khan who is now in Italy. I met Khalid Waqar who was conducting trials. He liked me and told other players that Aimal had a good height. He wrote my contact number and told me that I would be called when picked. In 2006 when I passed matric examination I tried to get admission at the most prestigious Jehanzeb College Saidu Sharif Swat but did not succeed. They said that I was not good in volleyball. I had got 700 marks but the merit was too high,” he recalled.
“In 2006 there was a national event. Khalid Waqar called my uncle Ghulam Rasheed who has immensely supported me. It is because of his contribution that I am now at this level. On the call from Khalid Waqar I went to Islamabad. This was the first time that I witnessed Liaquat Gymnasium at the Pakistan Sports Complex Islamabad. I saw former Pakistan captain Naseer Ahmed for the first time. Wearing shirt No8 I was really inspired by him. I saw WAPDA’s top players Irfan Nawaz, Shahid Hussain and Abdur Rahim. I also met Police’s leading players Zaman Butt and Kashif Mansoor.
I also had a meeting with the former Pakistan Volleyball Federation (PVF) Secretary Shahid Kamal. Shahid introduced me to the PVF president and former IG Police Chaudhry Yaqoob. I did not know that Yaqoob was IG and the PVF chief. But I was very impressed with his personality and the way he met. He still deals us like his children and respects us. Yaqoob sahib told me that I would be called next time for the camp,” Aimal conceded.
“When I returned home my school teacher Gulab Shah had come to know that I had attended the trials. He used to ask me about the outcome. He really used to motivate me and told me that sportsmen live highly respectable life. In 2006 Shahid Kamal invited me to a camp of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as NWFP, at Peshawar where I met Abdur Rahim who served Pakistan as skipper for eight years. Khalid Waqar, Shahid Kamal and Abdur Rahim worked extremely hard on us during the three-month long camp. They taught us the basics of volleyball. We all were youngsters,” Aimal narrated.
“As I had got admission in a private college in Swat after I was denied admission by Jehanzeb College, when I returned home from the camp I had been struck off by that college. I showed them the letter that I had been attending a camp but they did not accept and so my that year got wasted. In 2007 Chaudhry Yaqoob sahib had said in a statement that KP had great talent and PVF held several camps. In 2007 three months camp had been held. We went to Kashmir to feature in an event in which Police and WAPDA had also taken part. We had a good team and everybody congratulated Shahid Kamal, the Secretary General of KP Volleyball Association, for having such a nice side,” he said.
“When I returned Swat I took part in a local tournament. I was witnessed by the Jehanzeb College Director Sports. He came to me and apologized for denying me admission in his college. He told me to apply again and I will be given admission. I did so and eventually got admission in Jehanzeb College in 2007. When I cleared first year in 2008 a camp of Pakistan junior team for the Iran’s Asian Junior Championship was held and I was selected for the maiden international tour. I called my mother, who is no more in this world. She started weeping due to extreme happiness. I also wept. I then offered prayer and thanked God for the blessing he bestowed on me by enabling me to wear Pakistan’s colour.
I was the only player of the squad who got selected from a province. And from here family support started. My father has supported me a lot. When we were set to depart for Iran my brother-in-law, younger uncle and father gave me 400 dollars to appreciate my achievement and told me to do shopping in Iran and enjoy the tour,” he said.
“And quite interestingly we played superb volleyball and claimed bronze. This was the first time in the 26-year history of the Asian Junior Championships when Pakistan finished at the victory podium. Iranian coach Ali Reza Moameri, who was a world class coach, was with us,” Aimal was quick to add.
“The same year KP won gold in the Inter-Provincial Games in Peshawar. I was the flag-bearer of the KP team during the march-past. After one month at a ceremony at the Peshawar Press Club I got player of the year award which was a special moment for me.
In 2008 we beat the then top team Police 3-0. We also defeated Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF) . We lost to WAPDA and Army while fighting. This was the first time in history when a provincial team finished fourth in the national event which was usually dominated by departments,” Aimal said.
“The cluster of the same batch got jobs in WAPDA, PAF and Navy. WAPDA offered me the job in 2009. The 2009 was both a happy and a sad year for me.
The happy was in the sense that I got job in WAPDA and sad was in the sense that military operation started in Swat. Mullah Fazlullah, who was at our village, was wanted to Army. Our college was destroyed the same year. Because of the same issue I also missed a tour of Thailand. My two uncles and cousin Aftab, who was a volleyballer, were martyred. My maternal uncle died and my father was attacked by Taliban while returning from bazar after purchasing insulin injections. When operation ended and security forces controlled the situation I was selected in Pakistan senior team for 2010 Dhaka South Asian Games where we claimed silver. In 2010 we claimed fourth position in the Asian Junior Championship, the same year in Al-Rashid Cup in Dubai we got silver medal. This was the first time when I got a chance in the top six players in Pakistan team. We were losing 0-2 against Saudi Arabia. Coach Mazhar sahib sent me in in place of Naseer Ahmed and also brought in booster Binyamin and we went on to win the remaining three sets to beat Saudi Arabia. And it was a turning point for my career as I got man of the match award. I was also offered a contract by an Oman Club and I had my first professional stint with any foreign club in 2013. We had also visited Lebanon and also played Arab Club Championship. I had delivered for the Oman Club. I had been given decent purse during my three-month stint,” Aimal said.
“In 2011 under a Brazilian coach we had some good events in Bangladesh, Dubai, India and China. He was with us for one year. In 2011 we got seventh position in the Asian Championship in Iran and earned ticket for 2012 London Olympics qualifiers in Bulgaria. The qualifiers were nice experience. Our first game was with Bulgaria. Their people were hospital and true lovers of volleyball. They respected us a lot and those were fine moments. We played well against Bulgaria before losing to them. We later did well against Egypt before losing to them. We also played a four-set game against France. France was very strong as they went on to win the 2013 World Championships and the same outing is still available on youtube,” Aimal said.
“Our team has the potential to reach world level provided state supports our side,” Aimal was quick to add.
“In 2013 we got through the first round of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers in Sri Lanka after ensuring our entry in the Colombo event as federation was not only facing financial crunch but also confronting a parallel federation. However in the second round of the qualifiers in Iran, which also carried Bahrain and Indonesia, we lost to Iran who went to the third round under Argentinian Julio Velasco, the world’s top and expensive coach who had also earned the title of ‘coach of the century’”.
“The 2014 Incheon Asian Games were not good for us as we finished ninth. Personally it turned out to be lucky for me when I got man of the match award in our final match against Taiwan and earned a call from Taiwan Club. I played for that club in 2015 and 2016 seasons, for months each. In 2016 I went to perform Umrah with my mother who died in 2017 due to cancer. Because of her health issues and death I had to miss two national events also which obstructed my promotion in WAPDA. But losing mother was a huge loss for me. She once told me that when she will die I will realise how she had prayed for me. And believe me after 20 days of her death I was called by Dubai renowned club Al-Ain to undergo one month training with them,” Aimal said.
“At that time our teammate and my friend Murad Khan was in Maldives league and he also managed a contract for me in that club and we went on to win that league in 2017. When we returned we took part in the national event in POF Wah Cantt which we won. I also got injured and had to rest for two months. When I recovered I was offered contract by a club from Saudi Arabia. I went there, had a three-month stint with them and also captured a few man of the match awards. It was a good experience. In 2018 our WAPDA team went to Myanmar for Asian Club Championship. It was the first time that a Pakistani club featured in that event. We finished with a bronze and I was also declared the best spiker. That was a happiest day of my life. I had dedicated that award to my mother. The event also helped me finalise a deal with a Qatar Club and in 2019 I played league there for six months. When I returned from Qatar I was announced as Pakistan skipper for the Asian Championship in Iran. It was a fine moment of my life and everyone backed me particularly my all teammates. We finished seventh. We could have won a medal but we lost to Australia in a crucial game after winning two first sets. It was an upset for us. Then in 2020 I played in the Thailand League and emerged as the best spiker and second leading scorer,” Aimal said.
“The 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia were memorable for us as we beat India after a long time and edged past strong China for the first time in history. That event boosted our morale. India early that year had organised its pro league in which the world’s best players from US, Poland and Brazil had played. When we beat India they also scratched that pro league. In my opinion the world should get a fine message through sports. Indian players respect us and we respect them. There is no animosity on the sporting fields and it is a big plus,” Aimal said.
Aimal also recalled the 2016 South Asian Games bronze medal feat in India, which he said, was criticised by people. “Unfortunately we had lost to Sri Lanka,” Aimal signed off.