Indo-Pak hockey matches always carry a special flavour, especially if the traditional rivals come across in a title tournament; the final tops it all.
The recent final of the South Asian Games’ hockey in Guwahati, India, evoked a lot of interest across the two countries. For many, it was the marquee event of the multidisciplinary event which staged 22 sports over 12 days. The final was decided by a solitary goal netted by Pakistan’s Awais ur Rehman. The young striker, who had also scored two goals in the last league match against Bangladesh, made his international debut in this very tournament. In fact, it was his first ever appearance in Pakistan’s colours. He never gained selection for even the national juniors. Sounds like a Cinderella story but it has been a long struggle.
The strongly-built Lahore lad, not yet 20, narrates the journey. “My father Saif ur Rehman is himself a hockey player and remained active on the national circuit for a long time. He appeared in around 20 nationals for Lahore, Railways and Police, and also attended the national junior camp. He was selected for a tour of China in 1983 for the Pakistan Sports Board team but couldn’t make the trip because of a last minute injury,” he told ‘The News on Sunday’.
Saif ur Rehman instilled a love of hockey in his only son. Awais was enrolled in Model High school, Model Town, which had a strong hockey tradition.
“That provided me with a great start. The school had a lot of hockey activity and the team participated in a number of tournaments. We won the Jaffer memorial tournament, the oldest school event of Punjab. I played at different positions in the forward line but my favourite spot has always been centre forward; love scoring goals. My idol is Hasan Sardar (arguably the greatest centre forward in the history of the game). I spent many hours on internet watching his goal scoring techniques, positioning, etc. I also admire Rehan Butt. Though, not a centre forward, he was a wonderful poacher,” he said.
Next, he was picked up by the PHF’s Lahore academy. “I distinguished myself at the PHF inter-academy competition. In two appearances, I was once a top scorer and on the other occasion, finished second.”
His remarkable scoring skills soon attracted departments. “Customs were the first to spot me. In 2011, in the very first appearance for them, we won the national juniors and I was called for Pakistan juniors’ camp. Since then, I have attended every national junior camp. But despite scoring heavily in the junior camps as well as on the domestic circuit, I failed to win a selection; I was only named standby once,” he said.
The frustration got to an extent the boy thought of hanging his stick. “About a year back, I told my family that enough is enough. I wouldn’t get a chance and it was better to quit the game. Even my father appeared dejected,” he said.
But Awais’s mother got him out of this. “Son, hockey has been your life throughout and you have sacrificed everything for it. Hopefully, your chance would come soon,” she reassured him.
Persistence paid off finally and the dawn of 2016 saw his, and indeed the family’s dream, come true. The PHF decided to drop many senior players for the 2016 South Asian Games. It was the first senior camp for Awais and he earned the selection.
“It was my maiden appearance for Pakistan and I was a bit anxious; more so as we were playing in India. The team management handled it well. I was sent in the opening game against Sri Lanka but for a little duration. The next match was the high profile-encounter against the hosts. Again, I was played for a short while,” he said.
The youngster must have been impressive in his short stints on the field as he was played for the entire 60 minutes against the last league game versus Bangladesh.
Awais displayed his scoring skills with a brace. “Scoring my first international goals was a special feeling; it boosted my confidence a lot,” he said.
There was something more special awaiting him in the final. “The final was against India. We, the younger boys, felt a bit nervous. The coaches eased our nerves. They encouraged us by saying that ‘pressure will be on the Indians as they are playing in front of an expectant home crowd’.”
Tayebulla stadium was filled to capacity and the game was live on Indian television.
Awais wasn’t in the starting XI. Many among the Pakistani squad had never appeared in such a high-octane encounter. All this told and in the first quarter, Pakistan missed quite a few scoring chances.
Awais was introduced just before the interval and within a minute, he capped a good move to put Pakistan ahead just before the half time. The second half was more intense as the Indians tried their best to equalise but the Green-shirts managed to hold out.
Needless to say the post victory feelings were special for the debutant who had scored the only goal of the final.
“I remained transfixed for a while. Pakistan’s flag went up and the national anthem was played. Tears rolled in my eyes,” said Awais, who had gained stardom through that one goal.
“Media thronged our home even before the final ended. My parents and sisters were interviewed. When the team arrived at the Lahore airport, a large crowd, including my family, greeted us. Again, media invaded my place. The high point was the tea with the Prime Minister who also announced a reward of Rs1 million for each member of the squad. The whole thing was completely surreal”.
Awais plays for PIA on the domestic circuit. After his Guwahati exploits, Awais has received an offer to play in the Bangladesh league.
It might be hard to keep one’s feet on the ground with such immediate fame and attention but Awais knows it is just the beginning of the journey. “My first aim is to cement my place in the national team. I desire to contribute something substantial towards Pakistan hockey regaining its lost sheen,” he said.
And he knows one has to strive to achieve something. He has already been through it.