A year ago, at the Hockey World League semi-finals in London (June 2017), Pakistan team became a laughing stock. They twice lost to India, by 1-7 and 1-6, their worst ever defeats against their traditional rivals. Even Canada humbled them 6-0. This scribe remembers two Punjabi brothers, Sukhi and Balraj Panesar, members of the Canadian team, talking to us after the match. They said they couldn’t believe defeating Pakistan by such a margin.
The team management was rightly changed by the PHF with Farhat Khan coming as the manager/head coach. Pakistan finished a disappointing 3rd at the 2017 Asia Cup. Even worse was to follow at the 4-Nation Invitational Festival in Australia. Pakistan suffered their worst ever defeat in international arena going down to hosts 1-9. Moreover, they twice lost to Japan, a country which had never even appeared in an Asian Games/Asia Cup final.
Again, the manager and coaches were shown the door. The first assignment for the new management was a lowly 3-nation event in Oman in February this year.
Pakistan were once again defeated by Japan. Even the hosts Oman ranked around 20 places below Pakistan held the Green-shirts to a draw. Many regard it as the finest achievement for Oman in their hockey history.
Already out of the mainstream of international hockey, Pakistan feared demotion to the third tier.
Having tried a number of Pakistani Olympians, the PHF took a decision which for many was long overdue — hiring a foreign coach with proven credentials. Renowned Dutch coach Roelant Oltmans was appointed. He had coached Holland’s men to Olympics as well as World Cup golds, and their women to a World Cup victory.
Oltmans had had a one-year stint with the Pakistan national team in 2003-2004. Pakistan were fifth at the 2004 Olympics; they never finished above seventh after that. They even failed to qualify for 2016 Olympics.
Oltmans’s most recent assignment was in India from 2013-17, in the roles of performance director and later the head coach. When Oltmans joined the Indian national team, they were ranked 13th in the world. During his time, the team rose to No 6.
His first event with the Pakistan team was the Commonwealth Games 2018.
Oltmans made an immediate impact. At the CW Games, Pakistan ended seventh but there were a lot of positives. The Green-shirts remained undefeated throughout, achieving creditable draws against teams rated much higher, India (No 6) and England (No 7). Mostly, they came from behind to draw level. After quite some time, the Pakistan team displayed some real game plan. Notably, it was after six consecutive defeats that Pakistan were able to hold India.
Oltmans wasn’t satisfied with the players’ fitness. On his recommendations, PHF attached renowned Australian physical instructor Daniel Barry with the team.
The next assignment was the Champions Trophy. In the first phase of the preparation, under the supervision of Daniel Barry, a physical conditioning camp for the probable players was conducted at Abbottabad. After a two-week camp in Karachi, the squad flew to Holland about 20 days before the start of the Champions Trophy. There, Oltmans had arranged specialised training for goalkeeping and penalty corners under famous goalkeeping trainer Dennis Van de Pol, and legendary drag flicker Bram Lomans, respectively.
The Champions Trophy is contested by the top-ranked nations. Since this one at Breda was the last edition, the FIH extended a special invitation to the 13th-ranked Pakistan. This was to recognise Pakistan’s services: they had introduced the Champions Trophy, donated the trophy and hosted the first three editions.
The other five countries are ranked among world’s top six. Some anticipated a repeat of the World Hockey League of last year.
Pakistan finished last in the six-team competition losing the 5th-place playoff in the penalty shootout but they impressed all and sundry with a fine show almost throughout.
In the opener, they lost to India 0-4. But the scoreline doesn’t reflect the actual story. With just six minutes left, India led by the slenderest of the margins. The last two goals arrived when Pakistan had withdrawn the goalkeeper for an outfield player. Pakistan were ahead of India in the number of circle entries and shots on the goal.
Next, they came across the World Champions, also World No 1, Australia. In the last meeting, Pakistan had suffered that unforgettable 1-9 humiliation. This time, the Green-shirts gave the Kookaburras a run for their money, only going down 1-2 with the winning goal scored in the dying minutes.
The third match was against Holland which saw Pakistan’s only real failure as the hosts outplayed them 4-0.
The Green-shirts immediately bounced back and achieved a memorable result against the Olympic Champions Argentina (World No 2), defeating them comprehensively by 4-1.
In the last league encounter, Pakistan twice led World No 3 Belgium. It was 2-2 when the third quarter ended. However, Belgium managed to score two goals in the last 15 minutes.
The two sides met again in the play-off for the 5th place. Again, a close contest was seen. Belgium led 2-1 with five minutes left. Pakistan withdrew the net minder with an outfielder and it paid this time as they equalised in the last minute. Luck didn’t favour Pakistan in the shootout.
The TV commentators and experts all praised Pakistan. They said Pakistan appeared transformed. Oltmans’s name was even considered for the Coach of the Tournament.
Pakistan had shied away from the previous Champions Trophy in 2016 for fear of poor showing. Some point out that in the country’s last appearance in the event in 2014, Pakistan finished second. That position was mainly down to a bizarre format. At the 2014 Champions Trophy, the eight competing sides were placed in two pools with all the teams qualifying for the quarter-finals. Pakistan had lost all the three pool games, including 2-8 and 0-3 defeats. Thanks to the weird format, Pakistan made it to the quarters in which they defeated Holland. In the semi-finals, they edged past India 4-3 before going down to Germany 0-2 in the final.
The specialists have worked well. The fitness of players has visibly improved. Goalkeeper Imran Butt was arguably Pakistan’s man of the tournament.
Importantly, the team displayed a structure. Everyone knew what he had to do in various situations.
Under Oltmans, Pakistan are improving steadily and have now started knocking on the doors of the top tier. The PHF must continue to fully support him.