Belgium will always be remembered in the annals of history because of its famous battle of Waterloo in which Napoleon was defeated by the coalition forces in the battlefield located 15 kilometres south of Brussels.
This historic battle ended the series of wars that had convulsed Europe and many other regions of the world since the French Revolution, and brought an end to the political and military career of Napoleon.
But Pakistani fans will remember Belgium for the demise of their hockey at Antwerp.
Like all historic events, there are many lessons to be learnt, provided we want to do so — something more than just change the faces without addressing the root cause.
I am not sure what recommendations will be put up to the government by the fact-finding committee. Most of my friends were not happy when I predicted weeks before the departure of the Pakistani team to Belgium that Antwerp will prove to be Pakistan hockey’s Waterloo. This prediction was based on my objective observations.
Modern hockey is a swift and skill-based game which has adopted quite a few things from football and basketball.
The four-quarter game has increased the responsibilities of the coach. The new rules have made hockey more demanding. All the players now have to possess the skills of defending as well as attacking.
Gone are the days when only right wing moves were lethal. In modern hockey the key to the steady flow of passing options is the intelligent movement of players without ball. These players must meet play attack roles and defensive roles and be able to move in a flow without specialised positions.
During the qualifying round games, it was observed that one of the major problems with Pakistan and Indian hockey was their inability to transform from static positional style of play to dynamic and fluid modern hockey, which is characterised by skill, stamina, strength and tactical knowledge. During the national camp in Islamabad, I observed that there was hardly any emphasis on improving physical fitness and range of motion of players in a safe, injury-free style.
A player now does not only need to be an excellent dribbler but he also has to be more flexible, strong and explosive to outmaneuver his adversary. Thus ballistic activity and sprinting on astro turf is now as important as stick work and body dodges.
Success in modern hockey is often associated with speed, but balance and agility are the most important physical attributes that a player needs.
Rushing to execution of hockey techniques without mastering the speed, balance, agility and explosiveness will only promote mistakes and bad habits in offence and defense.
I also noticed the inability of Pakistan players in shifting the load side, that is, right to left and left to right during attacking moves.
Their defense also had deep problems as they were not good at slides, shuffles and drop-step techniques.
Our players were equally weak at receiving ground and aerial balls on forehand and reverse while they were moving or static.
The other weak areas included ball control and ball possession. The aim of ball control is to sidestep and sway with the ball from stationary to running position.
The criterion for strong ball control is that the ball must be next to your stick and in a push position. Such position enables the player to pass or dribble or elude the opponents, but this all was missing in our players in Belgium.
Our players are good at Indian dribble or zigzag where the objective is to bring the defender on wrong foot by sweeping the ball across in front of the defender’s feet in both directions.
When it comes to spin dribble, speed dribble or forehand dribble, our players were found fiddling with ball most of the time.
Whatever philosophy or playing style and tactics a coach may adapt, players should be good at jab tackle, the forehand block tackle, the reverse block tackle and the recovery tackling.
Most of the penalty corners that Pakistan conceded during the tournament were due to their weakness in reverse block tackling and poor recovery tackling techniques.
Pakistan missed many chances and failed to convert the crosses in front of the goal post due to poor finishing. Experienced players and coaches know that goal-scoring players increase the confidence of their team.
Shooting is now a specialised skill in hockey that needs daily practice. The ability to accurately shoot early and follow up the shot for rebounds under all conditions is thus essential. It was noticed during the qualifying matches for Olympics that Pakistani forwards were unable to take the shot on target, thus lacking finish and finesse.
The most important in finishing the attack is to be in the right position to connect the pass, but the Pakistani forwards were absolutely static because they lacked physical fitness.
Pakistani players were also unable to capitalise on rebounds given by goalkeepers.
All hockey players are aware of the fact that hockey ball bounces more when it hits foam than when it hits leather or cane kickers and leg guards.
Modern day defenders rarely give an opportunity to prepare to hit the ball before shooting. That’s why flicks and push shots have become more important in today’s hockey than power hitting in the circle. Pakistani players were not up to mark in this area.
To sum up, Pakistan hockey will have to seriously work on improving its basics.
The entire hockey system of Pakistan needs to be reviewed. As a short term measure Pakistan hockey will have to create a pool of 50-60 physically and mentally fit players who should be housed away from Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, preferably at some high altitude training center, where their physical and biomechanical improvement along with basic skill development should be focused for 12 to 18 months under the supervision of proper trainers, nutritionists and coaches.
After 18 months of sincere effort, 30-32 players should be filtered that should undergo higher tactical and specialised training for five to six months.
A final team of 20 players should then be picked to undertake a European tour of two or three countries. I am sure this process of two years, if carried out with the right spirit, will bring Pakistan back on winning track.
The government must also pay due attention to career paths of players. The easiest way out is to give them jobs in different departments. In case this is not possible, then some mechanism has to be evolved to provide sustainable financial support to the final talent club of Pakistan hockey players through CSR initiatives of major corporate companies in the country.
I am sorry to say the ex-player coaching system in the country is not paying. PHF needs to evolve coaching grading index for local coaches based on the performances of teams in local tournaments.