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Down but not out

Pakistan might have finished at a dismal fifth place in the seven-nation Sultan Azlan Shah Cup but it wasn’t a bad showing from a team that is in a rebuilding stage

Down but not out

After the biggest debacle in the history of Pakistan hockey — the failure to qualify for the 2016 Olympics — major changes were brought in the PHF. Brig Khalid Khokhar and Shahbaz Ahmed came as the president and the secretary, respectively.

The gold medal win at the South Asian Games was an encouraging result but the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup was the first big test for the senior side under the new regime.

The invitational tournament is generally utilised by the participating teams to experiment with new combinations but it didn’t happen this time, at least by four of the seven sides. Australia, India, New Zealand and Canada will be figuring in the Rio Olympics in less than four months and they brought their full-strength squads. Malaysia, being the hosts, always enter this tournament with proper preparation.

For Pakistan, it was different. The team is going through a rebuilding process. The first objective is to raise a good combination so as to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The PHF took a brave step by dropping a few senior players who were part of the national side for many years and had failed to produce any meaningful results.

The players not selected included Muhammad Imran and Shafqat Rasool, captain and vice-captain, at the 2015 World Hockey League semi-finals, where Pakistan’s poor eighth position led to their ouster from the Olympics.

Of the teams in Ipoh, Australia (1), India (7) and New Zealand (8) were ranked higher than Pakistan (10) as per the FIH standings.  Among the sides ranked lower, Malaysia (13) almost always perform well at home. Canada (14) have been preparing hard for the Olympics.

The head coach Khawaja Junaid had aimed at a realistic target of fourth position. It was not achieved as they finished a rung lower.

Pakistan had a promising start, defeating Canada easily. The second game was against New Zealand, the defending champions. Poor defence resulted in a 3-5 loss. Pakistan played well and had more possession. It was 2-2 at half time. A six-minute spell in the third quarter saw the Black Sticks slamming three goals off three penalty corners which sealed the match. Custodian Imran Butt had a bad day.

Next, they were up against Australia, the number one team in the world. Even the most optimistic wouldn’t give Pakistan any chance. The strategy was quite evident: defend with numbers and go for the counter attacks. Pakistan’s deep defence did hold the Kookaburras for long periods, but the counters completely lacked the thrust to bother the world’s best side. The backline was bound to cave in and Aussies 4-0 victory was no surprise at all.

It was followed by the most eagerly awaited clash, against the traditional rivals India. A victory in that match would have kept Pakistan in contention for a place in the final. Pakistan had twice defeated India at the recent South Asian games at the latter’s backyard. There India had fielded an under-strength side as the frontline players were busy in world’s most lucrative event, the Hockey India League.

A close contest was expected but the Indians were all over Pakistan and ran out winners with a 5-1 margin.

IJAZ-Arslan Qadir-1

India eventually finished second. Their steady rise over the last few years epitomises the vitality of a strong domestic competition. In the HIL, the Indian players, established and upcoming, rub shoulders with the best of the world day in and day out.

Even after three consecutive defeats, a win over Malaysia would have given Pakistan a chance for the bronze medal play off. But it wasn’t Pakistan’s day. Malaysia scored an early goal and then lived dangerously for long periods before edging Pakistan 1-0. Malaysia’s leading national daily ‘The Star’ reported, “The perennial problem of sloppy defending continues to plague Malaysian hockey. It’s hard to fathom how Pakistan failed to get a goal or two. Only some timely interventions by goal keeper Hairi and poor finishing by the Pakistanis kept the Malaysia ahead.”

A defeat in the last game of the round robin against Japan would have earned Pakistan the wooden spoon. The momentum gained in the match against Malaysia was carried against the Japanese and also in the 5th position match against Canada with Pakistan emerging easy winners in both the games.

Apart from the inexplicably big loss against India, Pakistan’s performance wasn’t far from the expectations.

The 5th position with an experimental outfit is not bad when compared with Pakistan’s record in the Azlan Shah Cup in recent times.

Pakistan didn’t figure in the last two editions. In 2014, they pulled out at the eleventh hour, causing a lot of problems for the organisers.

Consequently, Pakistan were not invited the next year. In their last two appearances, they had finished at the bottom, in 2013 (among six teams) and 2014 (among seven).

Some youngsters dazzled in Ipoh. Arslan Qadir, with six goals, topped the tournaments’ scoring chart; he also won two ‘Man of the Match’ awards. He is shaping into a classic marksman with the ability to score from any position.

Though the debutant Ejaz missed some good chances, he seems to have the speed and the skill to develop into a dangerous forward.  Midfielders Amad Shakeel Butt and Tasawwar Abbas were good work horses in defence as well as in attack. The team moved with good cohesion in the last three matches albeit against lowly ranking sides.

That said there were several grey areas. Custodian Imran Butt was inconsistent: brilliant at times but also conceding soft goals. Deep defence made quite a few costly unforced errors. Penalty corner conversion remained poor even by Pakistani standards. Forwards missed chances aplenty.  Mostly, the attacks were carried out through flanks with lesser penetration from the middle.

Then there were off the field problems. Hanif Khan, the originally named manager, annoyed with the team selection, first decided not to accompany the squad. Col Mohsin was called as the stand in manager. Hanif changed his mind and eventually both landed in Ipoh with the squad; Mohsin as the assistant manager.

During some matches, Hanif and Khawaja Junaid, the head coach, were simultaneously giving instructions to the players from the sidelines. One doesn’t witness such bizarre scenes even during club games.

It was heartening to see Happilac Paints’ logo on the team’s shirts. After a long time, a private business house has been roped in by the PHF to sponsor the national team.

The PHF needs to build on the positives seen here and rectify the grey areas both on and off the pitch. All told, Pakistan hockey’s graph showed a slight upward trend.

Ijaz Chaudhry

Ijaz Chaudhry
The author is a freelance sports journalist. He may be reached at [email protected]

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