The semi-final round of the Hockey World League to be held in London in June is going to be the biggest challenge for Pakistan hockey this year since the tournament doubles up as the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup.
The Green-shirts, the record four time World Cup winners, had failed to qualify for the previous edition, in 2014.
Pakistan’s showing on the international stage since then doesn’t present a rosy picture either. They failed to qualify for the 2016 Olympics; another dubious first.
All this makes the qualification for the next World Cup very important for the future of hockey in the country.
They say there is no substitute for competition. Recently, Pakistan’s national team toured down under. The Green-shirts won the five-match series in New Zealand 2-1, but lost all the four tests in Australia.
Khawaja Junaid, the head coach of Pakistan, shares his views about the team’s show during the tour.
The News on Sunday: It must have been a big challenge for your 14th ranked side to be up against the 8th- ranked New Zealand and no 1 Australia.
Khawaja Junaid: Indeed. But we wanted to know where Pakistan stand vis-à-vis the higher ranked sides. Plus you improve only by playing against better sides.
TNS: How do you rate the overall performance?
KJ: Very satisfactory. It was an experimental squad. Four players wore the national senior shirt for the first time. Three were recalled after quite some time. Pakistan managed to win the series in New Zealand 2-1. Though we were defeated in all the four tests against Australia but the match scores show improvement throughout: 1-6, 0-3, 0-2 and 3-5.
In Australia, we had just arrived from New Zealand where temperature was 10 degrees Celsius. In Darwin, it was 35 degrees. More than the heat, it was the humidity (87%) which affected our performance.
Still, we were down by only two goals till the 44th minute. The well-acclimatised hosts scored four in the last 16 minutes.
In New Zealand also, the graph showed an upward curve. After losing the first test, Pakistan drew the next and won the third to get level. The fourth test turned out to be the most hotly contested. We won the fast paced match 2-1. The Black Sticks were under immense pressure to win the last test to at least draw the series. We knew they would come attacking, so Pakistan’s strategy was based on defending in numbers and go for the offense on turnovers. That worked and the 1-1 draw meant a series victory for us over a side ranked six places above.
TNS: Did the opposition field their best sides?
KJ: They too had new faces, but if the number of caps is added, Pakistan were the least experienced of the three teams. The average age of this team comes to just 24.
In New Zealand, as I told you, it was a fiercely fought series from the game one to five. These days, all the big teams have sponsors. Hockey New Zealand recently struck a partnership with the Vantage Windows & Doors as the naming rights sponsor. Hence it was Vantage Black Sticks vs Pakistan. And sponsors expect better results.
New Zealand’s coach Smith appreciated Pakistan’s display, ‘Pakistan were impressive throughout the series.’
Colin Batch, the Australian coach, also meant business. On the eve of the series, he told the media, ‘Our team will be able to show Darwin just why they are ranked number 1 in the world when they take on Pakistanis in the four game tests.’
When Australia defeated Pakistan 6-1 in the first test, Batch declared, ‘We aim to win the next test by an even greater margin.’
After the final test which Australia won 5-3 — the hosts’ last goal coming in the final few seconds — 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.’
TNS: Areas showing discernible improvement.
KJ: The players were more proactive this time. They were aware of the situation and positioned themselves accordingly. The boys also showed tactical understanding to exploit the space created during offence. Physical fitness was good. In almost all the matches in New Zealand, vital goals were scored in the latter stages.
TNS: Areas still needing improvement.
KJ: Defence, especially off penalty corners, is still worrisome. We could have avoided conceding quite a few goals. The coordination as a group while defending leaves a lot to be desired.
TNS: Players who were really outstanding.
KJ: I think all contributed. Goalkeeping has been our weak link for quite some time. Both the net minders, Mazhar and Amjad, were solid under the bar. Umar Bhutta and Ali Shan, who appeared in only three matches before getting unfit, were superb. The new lads also gave a good account of themselves. Abubakr was outstanding in his role of attacking right half. He scored goals in field play as well as off penalty corners.
TNS: It was Haseem Khan’s first assignment as the captain.
KJ: Haseem proved to be a true leader both on and off the pitch. I have had quite a few spells as the manager/coach of Pakistan’s national and junior sides. The harmony seen in this bunch was perhaps the best. A lot of credit goes to Haseem; he had a good imposing influence.
TNS: Will you consider senior players such as Rizwan Sr, Fareed and Rashid, not taken on this tour, for future assignments?
KJ: I personally like to have competition among the players. Therefore, it will be nice to have them in the camp, and then we will see.
TNS: Any preparatory tour planned before the Hockey World League Semi Finals in June?
KJ: Talks are on with some European countries. We are hopeful to play a few tests in Ireland and Spain in the latter half of May.
This encouraging display could not have come at a better time: a couple of months before the all-important HWL semifinals in London. The qualification for the World Cup could herald Pakistan’s comeback in international hockey.