Pakistan, record four -times World Cup winners, had failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2014. They also failed to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. Hence qualification for the 2018 World Cup is of utmost importance for the future of the game in Pakistan.
The Hockey World League semi-final round in London from June 15-25 doubles up as the qualifier for the World Cup.
The Haseem Khan-led Pakistan team flew off on the 27th for the event. Prior to the London event, Pakistan will play a three-test series against Ireland at Belfast’s Lisnagarvey Hockey Club.
The tests are scheduled on June 1, 3 and 4. Two matches against Ireland’s under-21 side have also been arranged, on June 6 and 7. Apart from providing vital match practice, the Irish trip will also help Pakistan team acclimatise to the much cooler temperatures for the HWL.
Ireland should provide a good competition to Pakistan. The Irish hockey is enjoying a purple patch for quite some time. In fact, the recent years have seen Ireland hockey achieving glories as never before. When they appeared in the 2016 Olympic, it was Irish hockey team’s first-ever qualification for the world’s biggest sporting extravaganza. Their previous appearance was in 1908 when hockey made its Olympic debut. Then the teams didn’t have to qualify; they were invited.
Moreover, Ireland men’s hockey team at the 2016 Olympics was the first ‘team’ to represent the country in any sport at the Olympics in 60 years. Ironically, they did it at Pakistan’s expense.
At the Hockey World League Semi-final round in Antwerp in 2015, Ireland defeated Pakistan 1-0 in the match for 5-8 positions. Ireland eventually finished 5th and qualified for the 2016 Olympics. That defeat condemned Pakistan to miss out on the Olympics for the first time ever. Arguably, Ireland’s biggest hockey success arrived a few weeks later. At the 2015 EuroHockey Championships, they surprised everyone by finishing third; they had never reached the semi-finals before. In the bronze medal match, the Green Machine twice came from behind to overpower the hosts England 4-2.
And now Ireland are on the road to World Cup 2018. They have made it to the Hockey World League semi-final round; one to be staged in Johannesburg, South Africa, in July. Their previous World Cup appearance was way back in 1990 in Lahore. Currently, Ireland are ninth in world rankings, four spots above Pakistan. All this means Pakistan will have to bring out their best during the series.
Pakistan’s national side’s performance graph is also showing an upward curve. Their last tournament appearance was at the Asian Champions Trophy 2016. After a 2-4 loss in the opening game against Malaysia, Pakistan did very well to make it to the final where they lost 2-3 to India in a closely-fought encounter.
In 2017, Pakistan’s sole international sojourn was the tour Down Under during which they played bilateral series in New Zealand and Australia.
In New Zealand, after losing the first test, they defeated the eighth-ranked hosts 2-1 in the five-test series. Though Pakistan lost all the four tests against Australia, their performance improved with every match: 1-6, 0-3, 0-2 and 3-5.
Australian coach Colin Batch commented, “Tonight was the best game of the series. Pakistan certainly brought the game alive with their attacking structure which they are renowned for. They had a lot of run in their legs which challenged us in deep defence. Twice we had to come from behind.”
David Harte is the biggest star of Ireland hockey. In fact, it won’t be wrong to call him the Face of Irish Hockey. He is the winner of the FIH Goalkeeper of the Year award for the last two years running. The 196 cm (6’5”) net minder has played a pivotal role in Ireland’s successes. Harte was declared the ‘Goalkeeper of the Tournament’ at the EuroHockey Nations Championship in 2015 when Ireland won the bronze. Harte’s exceptional talent means he is in great demand the world over. He has appeared in all the five editions of the Hockey India League held so far.
In 2016, he was auctioned for $65,000, which makes him the most expensive goalkeeper in the world.
Green is the national colour of both Pakistan and Ireland. Pakistan’s hockey team is called Green Shirts. Irish hockey teams are Green Machine (Men) and Green Army (women).
A very exciting hockey contest is expected between the Green-shirts and Green Machine in the first few days of June at Belfast, this scribe’s birth place.