Team sports were introduced at the Commonwealth Games for the first time in 1998. Only three team disciplines have remained part of each edition of the quadrennial event: Hockey, Netball and Rugby Sevens. Netball is women’s only while rugby sevens had a women competition for the first time in 2018. Hockey is the only team sport which has had a competition for both men and women in every edition since 1998.
At the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, the hockey event had 10 teams competing in both men and women.
Hockey caught the attention of people even before the start of the action. The host nation’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony carries a lot of honour. The honour went to the Kookaburras captain Mark Knowles. The iconic player had already announced that the Commonwealth Games would be his swansong. It was a fairytale ending to the career of twice World Cup winner, Olympic gold medallist and FIH Player of the Year as Australia kept their impeccable record at these games: winning the gold at all the six editions, defeating their trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand 2-0 in the final.
Nonetheless, it was an excellent show by the Black Sticks Men, who defied the rankings to win the silver for only the second time in these games.
The Black Sticks Women did even better. It was again an Australia-New Zealand final. New Zealand, ironically coached by Australian Mark Hager, outplayed the four-time gold medallists 4-1 for their maiden Commonwealth gold.
If Knowles was Australia’s flag bearer at the opening, the Black Sticks Women’s captain Stacey Michelsen was given the honour by her country at the closing.
The bronze medal games also saw the same two sides, England and India. England’s men and women both emerged victorious.
English women, the reigning Olympic Champions and ranked two in the world, had come with high hopes of annexing the gold which would have been a great morale boaster before the World Cup at home this summer. But they were undone by New Zealand in shootout in the semi-finals. They apparently vented the anger in the bronze play-off by hammering the hapless Indians 6-0.
The Indian men saddened their fans more than did the women. India had finished second in the last two editions. They would have done a world of good for their confidence as they are hosting the men’s World Cup later this year. But their fate was not dissimilar to that of the English women. In fact, the Indian eves had the satisfaction of reaching the semi-final after missing out in the last two editions; they even defeated the mighty England in the pool game.
For Malaysia, it went a little better than the script: fifth and eighth positions for men (6th ranked) and women (8th ranked), respectively.
If Scotland’s women ended eighth despite being ranked sixth, the ninth-ranked men made the hockey followers back home happy with a sixth-place finish.
In the playoff for the 5th place, they went down fighting 1-2 to the Malaysians after taking the lead.
For the Canadians, the females (ranked seventh and position fifth) balanced out the males’ (ranked fifth and position eighth) poor show.
Like Pakistan, Wales’ positions belie their performance. The 10th-ranked men ended 9th and the 9th place for the women was as per their ranking. Nevertheless, they created quite a stir with a number of outstanding displays. The men opened with a 1-1 draw with Pakistan. India barely managed a 4-3 win against them. England were given a real scare as the Welsh led 2-0 at the half time, only to lose 2-3. The women had a famous 2-1 win over India in their first outing.
The lowest-ranked Ghanaian women team ended last. But the mere appearance was a landmark in itself; it was the first time they had qualified for Commonwealth Games’.
South Africa were the only country with double disappointment. Eighth-seeded men were last while their fifth-ranked women finished sixth.
The standard of the game was very pleasing to the eyes throughout and was enjoyed by big crowds at almost all the games.
2 New Zealand
10 South Africa
1 New Zealand
6 South Africa
Seventh place for Pakistan is apparently not impressive for the once mighty hockey nation. But almost everyone, the experts and the followers, agree that the Green-shirts put up a very improved show considering their performance over the last couple of years. They remained undefeated in all the five matches. After all their four group matches ended in draw, they won the seventh position match.
Pakistan didn’t start well. They drew 1-1 with Wales, the lowest-ranked side at Gold Coast. In the second game, India led 2-0 at the half time. Many thought of a repeat of recent failures, but in a remarkable fightback, the Pakistanis reduced the margin and then equalised in the last seconds.
Next, they came across another much higher-ranked side in England. Again, they came out with a 2-2 draw with the equaliser coming with just three minutes left.
In the last pool encounter, Pakistan, ranked 13th in the world, and Malaysia, the no 12, played a 1-1 draw.
Only the specific rules for this particular tournament denied Pakistan qualification for the 5th-place match. Pakistan and Malaysia ended with the same number of points after the pool games. Usually, in such a scenario, the team with a better goal difference is placed above. But in this event, it was the side with more wins in the pool. Pakistan had drawn all the four, while Malaysia had one win so the latter finished ahead in the pool standings.
In the 7th position play-off, Pakistan again came from behind to win 3-1 against Canada, ranked two places above them.
In four of the five matches, the Pakistanis were behind at some time during the second half. This speaks not only of the fighting spirit but also their physical fitness. Technically also, after a long time, there was some organisation and structure in their play.
They had had some miserable defeats in recent times against some of the opponents here. The worst record was against the traditional rivals India: the Pakistanis had lost all the last six encounters, including the 7-1 and 6-1 losses in the World Hockey League in 2017. At the same event, Canada had inflicted a 6-0 defeat. All this suggests some real improvement; a definite ray of hope.