Winning the South Asian Games (SAG) gold in the Indian city of Guwahati is the second good news for Pakistan hockey in recent times.
A few months back, the national junior team had finished second at the Junior Asia Cup in Malaysia, thus qualifying for the next Junior World Cup to be held later this year.
At these games, it was a two-horse race, between Pakistan and India. The other sides, Bangladesh and Sri Lank, were never in contention. The two mega sides met twice in the event, in the league and the final. Pakistan won both the times with score lines of 2-1 and 1-0.
With this, the Green-shirts completed a hat-trick of hockey gold medals at the SAG. Of the 12 editions of SAG, hockey has featured only four times. India were the winners in 1995. Pakistan mounted the top of the podium in 2006 and 2010.
Both Pakistan and India had entered under-strength teams. Pakistan excluded quite a few seniors, including the regular captain M Imran, Rizwan Sr, Rashid and Shafqat Rasool. The squad also included three uncapped players.
By default, Hockey India had to select quite an inexperienced side. Hockey India League (HIL), the world’s most lucrative league is currently under way and all the big names of Indian hockey are engaged there. The Indian team at the SAG had just four players with any international experience.
Hence, Pakistan’s win was always on the cards. But Indo-Pak duels always have a special chemistry. The on paper strengths sometimes don’t translate on the field. When hockey figured in the SAG for the first time in 1995, in Chennai, Pakistan and India met in the last match of the league which was a decider; there being no final. Having a better goal average, Pakistan only required a draw. They were the reigning World Champions and almost the same team. Stars like Shahbaz, Junaid, Tahir Zaman and Mansoor had figured in the World Cup triumph a year before. But the Indians surprised everyone with a resounding 5-2 victory. Exactly, one year later, the same two sides met again at the same venue.
It was the crucial Champions Trophy tie; a virtual semi-final. This time, Pakistan fielded an experimental side with no less than six making their international debut. While the Indians in their quest for victory on home soil selected the strongest possible team, even recalling the veteran full back, the great Pargat Singh. They had the home support but Pakistan prevailed.
That pales into comparison with the results of two back-to-back 1982 ties. At the final of the Delhi Asian Games, in front of more than 50,000 Indian spectators including Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Pakistan had a record 7-1 victory over the hosts. It was December 1. Only 10 days later, the two nations met again in the high-profile Esanda Tournament in Melbourne with India upsetting the World and Asian Champions by two goals to one.
It would require the skills of a sports punter of Billy Walters’ calibre to predict the result of a Pakistan/ India hockey tie.
The last time the two nations met in a hockey match in India was the 2014 Champions Trophy semi-final. After Pakistan’s 4-3 victory, the celebrations of a couple of Pakistani players were deemed unsportsmanlike and they were banned for the final.
Considering all this, it was a correct decision by the PHF to include some mature and experienced players along with the younger boys to sustain the pressure atmosphere.
There were other problems as well. As per the Pakistan Sports Board’s directive, only 16 players were selected by the PHF. It was realised only after reaching Guwahati that other squads consisted of 18 members going by the tournament’s rules, with 16 on the bench for every match. Then one player Samiuallah didn’t accompany because his visa couldn’t be arranged. To make up the numbers, Rehan Butt, the assistant coach was included in the team. The journey to Guwahati took 30 hours. Fareed Ahmad (vice-captain) and Rizwan fell sick on the eve of the opening match. Hasim Khan got injured during training. This compelled Rehan Butt, who is not active even on the domestic circuit, to take the field for some time, in a couple of matches.
The Indians had the backing of big crowds in both the games against their traditional rivals. They fought well despite the gulf in experience. Nevertheless, Pakistanis held their nerves to win both the high-octane encounters and come home with gold at a title tournament.
Hockey’s importance for the two countries can’t be overemphasized. It is best epitomised by the reaction of Rajiv Yadav, sports secretary of the government of India. He was angry with Hockey India for fielding a weakened Indian. He said the money angle has become so important that the athletes have forgotten the Olympic spirit. “India and Pakistan are two top teams in the region. It is an emotional match for the public. We had requested Hockey India to field a strong team but that did not happen,” he said.
India humiliated all the other countries of the region at the 12th South Asian Games, winning a record number of 188 golds. Pakistan were a distant third with a shameful tally of 12. Yet, the secretary of sports expressed his disappointment over the hockey loss.
So this hockey gold should be savoured. The PHF has done well to act quickly. The Prime Minister who is the patron in chief of the PHF has announced an award of Rs500,000 for each member of the victorious team. This is important because apart from cricket, there is not much financial incentive for this country’s sports persons.
Is Pakistan hockey back on the track? It would be a false assumption that our hockey has turned a new leaf. Victories over the FIH’s-seventh ranked side in a low profile event should only serve as a morale booster. There is a very long way to go before even the signs of revival could appear on the horizon.