Pakistan hockey had been struggling for a long time. Even at the regional level, the national team had not been able to produce notable results. That is why Pakistan’s recent show at the Asian Champions Trophy was quite encouraging. They were able to reach the final at Oman. They had not been able to reach the finals of 2017 Asia Cup and 2018 Asian Games. The much anticipated final against India was abandoned due to torrential rain and the two finalists were declared the joint winners. This should serve as a morale boaster for the team with the World Cup starting in less than a month.
It was a good team effort by the Green-shirts. No less than 11 players had their names on the score sheet. There were open play and penalty corner conversions. Defence held out during crucial phases quite a few times. Net-minder Imran Butt’s overall show was good.
There were individual awards at the tournament for the best player, the best goalkeeper, the highest scorer and for the emerging player. One of the awards was clinched by Pakistan’s Abubakar Mahmood. He was declared the Emerging Player of the 2018 Asian Champions Trophy.
The Faisalabad lad was evasive when asked to comment on his achievement. “I am happy that the team won a major international event after a long time. The individual awards make you proud only if accompanied by team’s success.”
The 20-year-old boy, always conspicuous on the field for his distinctive hair style and beard, has had family support from the beginning. “My father played hockey, though not at the top level. He instilled in me the love for the game. We reside in the heart of Faisalabad yet he got me admitted to Government Gatti high school located in the city’s suburbs. The school has a strong tradition of hockey having produced quite a few senior and junior internationals. I was only 13 when I got selected for the PHF academy in Faisalabad. There, my game flourished under the tutelage of World Cup winner Malik Shafqat.”
Soon, he was in contention for the national age group selection. “The first time I realised that I had some real talent was when the call came for the youth Olympics qualifiers’ camp in 2013. I was named among the standbys. One year later, I wore the coveted green blazer for the first time at the Sultan of Johor Cup (under 21) tournament in Malaysia.”
There was no looking back after that. “I made all the tours with the national junior team over the next two years. Highlights were the second position at the Junior Asia Cup 2015 which enabled Pakistan to qualify for the Junior World Cup and the second position also at the Sultan of Johor Cup 2016. At the latter, we defeated teams ranked higher than Pakistan. Importantly, this success came just a few weeks before the Junior World Cup. But we were prevented from participation in the 2016 Junior World Cup in bizarre circumstances.”
Nevertheless, the disappointment was somewhat compensated by an immediate first call for Pakistan senior team, for the tour of New Zealand and Australia in March 2017. He was an instant success; Pakistan’s top scorer on the tour.
“My maiden series against New Zealand was quite exciting. After losing the first test, we came from behind to win the series and I scored a hat trick in one of our victories.”
He has remained an integral part of the national squad. The year 2017 wasn’t very good for Pakistan hockey but Abubakar had something to cheer about. He was Pakistan’s top scorer with 11 goals; some achievement in the first year of international career.
It is pertinent to mention that Abubakar comes from the uncommon species of players who score goals in open play as well as off penalty corners.
“I have always been a drag flicker. I mostly play in the midfield and because of my attacking instincts many coaches assign me a freewheeling role which enables me to score field goals. For more than a year, I remained Pakistan’s first choice on penalty corners. However, when Roelant Otlmans took over the team, he prepared four of us, I, Aleem Bilal, Mubashar Ali and Tauseeq, for penalty corner conversion. His aim was to bring variety and all four were tried according to the match situation and the opponents’ strategy regarding PC defence. After Oltmans left, the management has assigned Aleem Bilal and Mubashar Ali the role.”
Though a relatively newcomer on the international horizon, Abubakar already has had offers to play in foreign leagues. “I have been approached by a French club figuring in the Elite League, the country’s top tier, as well as a Malaysian club. But I will only think about foreign ventures after the World Cup.”
About his favourites in the game, he said: “I have always admired Pakistan’s former captain Nadeem ND for his style and skills. Among drag flickers, Sohail Abbas is my ideal. I learnt a lot watching his videos. Even today I talk to him for tips.”
Coming back to the Asian Champions Trophy, Abubakar was happy at Pakistan’s show. “After a long time, Pakistan achieved some good result at an international event. The seniors as well as the youngsters in the squad were all determined to do well and there was a general feeling that we are going to achieve something. Manager Hassan Sardar has created a harmonious atmosphere. He is a very soft spoken person and treats us as his children.
“The performance at Oman has boasted our confidence for the World Cup. We feel Pakistan can spring a surprise or two at Bhubaneswar.”