International hockey returned to Pakistan after a long time. A World XI comprising mega stars from the top-ranked hockey nations played two matches against Pakistan in Karachi and Lahore. After a long time, hockey was in spotlight in the country for good reasons.
The legendary Dutch hockey umpire Rob Lathouwers, who whistled around the world from 1978 to 1994, played an important role in arranging this memorable tour.
“Pakistan is like a second home to me. I have visited the country 11 times. I was delighted when somewhere in the middle of November, secretary PHF Shahbaz Ahmad reached out to me with the idea of a World XI tour of Pakistan. The holiday season in Europe and Oceania meant the earliest possible time was the second half of January.”
Lathouwers dispels the impression created by some that the visiting side was made up of players no longer active in the sport. “I wanted big names from big teams. Argentina are the Olympic champions and all the three Argentine players had played in the Hockey League Final a few months back. Likewise, Spain’s Roc Oliva and David Alegre are members of the current national squad. World champions Australia and the European Champions Holland had a bilateral series down under. New Zealand are engaged in two back-to-back four-nation tournaments. In Germany, unlike most of the other big hockey nations, the top outdoor players figure in the indoor season as well. Hence, the next best option was to rope in the stars who have recently retired from the international scene but are still active in the top tier of domestic league. “As you know, the top tier clubs of leading countries only recruit players on the basis of form and fitness regardless of the CV.
“I consider myself very fortunate that big names such as Australia’s Grant Schubert (gold medals from Olympics, World Cup and Commonwealth Games), Holland’s 27-year-old Rob Reckers (Olympic silver, European gold and three Champions Trophy golds), New Zealand’s Phil Burrows (his country’s most capped player and top field goal scorer were part of the team. Holland’s 19-year-old Hiddi Turkstra (2016 Olympian) was also there.
“It was not an easy task to assemble such a galaxy of stars with a wonderful blend of youth and experience, and in so little time.”
Were there any apprehensions regarding security situation in Pakistan? “Only one Australian player refused to come citing security concerns. Yes, some did ask questions but they all agreed to come to Pakistan as the law and order situation in the country is now quite good.”
Rob appreciates the induction of six foreign and as many Pakistani legends into the Hall of Fame. “Litjens, Bovelander, Blunck and Escarre were not only great players of their time but they also have fond memories of Pakistan. Don Prior and I whistled in the country many times.
“All the six Pakistani stalwarts played stellar roles in quite a few glorious global victories of Pakistan. For me, it was a great feeling to be honoured in a country which has contributed so much to the game of hockey in so many ways.”
The hospitality and media coverage amazed him. “Most of us had visited Pakistan before and always had a good experience but it was even better this time. The social functions, Hall of Fame in Karachi and the dinner at Lahore, everything was memorable. We met quite a few Pakistani stalwarts after a long time. A few of us called on the Army Chief, General Bajwa. He turned out to be a great hockey lover and recalled his memories, especially pertaining to Litjens and Bovelander.
“The two press conferences were very good and also well covered, and so were the social functions. There was more media coverage than we saw in the 1990 Lahore World Cup.”
One aspect was a bit depressing to him, though. “The crowds in the stadium were below expectations. Perhaps, the time was too short for publicity. The number would have been good for a European ground but I have seen overflowing stadiums in Karachi and Lahore.”
Pakistan’s current standing depresses Lathouwers. “Pakistan hockey is very dear to my heart and I earnestly hope that the country climbs back to the top echelon of international hockey. To achieve this, concerted efforts are required in many spheres. I am looking forward to the launching of Pakistan Hockey League which could play a big role in the revival. PHF’s president and secretary are very eager about it. One also hopes that after this World XI tour, Pakistanis see more international hockey in their backyard.”