Pakistan were ranked seventh among the 10 countries who entered the hockey competitions of the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast, Australia. And they finished seventh. However, all agreed that it was quite an improved performance from the Green-shirts when compared to their show at the international arena in recent times.
Pakistan drew the four pool matches and won the seventh-place play-off against Canada. The world’s 13th-ranked team came from behind to draw 2-2 against the two top-seeded sides in their pool, India and England, 6th and 7th, respectively in the FIH rankings.
The result against India was particularly morale-boosting as Pakistan had lost the last six encounters against their arch-rivals which included some heavy defeats. Likewise, they had been defeated 0-6 by Canada when the two sides last met, at the World Hockey League semi-finals in 2017. This time Pakistan went past the North Americans 3-1.
In fact, Pakistan were unlucky not to figure in the 5th-position match. Pakistan and Malaysia were equal on points after the conclusion of the pool matches. Usually, the team with a better goal difference is placed ahead, Pakistan in this case. But in this event, it was the team with more wins in the pool. Thus, Malaysia went on to play the 5th-place match.
In four of the five matches, Pakistanis were trailing at some time during the second half. This speaks of their fighting spirit as well as physical fitness. Strategic organisation and structure were also visible in their play.
Gold Coast was Pakistan’s first assignment under the famed Dutch coach Roelant Oltmans. It was a good team effort and all the players contributed. Imran Butt was brilliant under the bars.
Former captain Irfan Sr marshalled the defence well. Up front, the new captain Rizwan Sr many a time pierced open the opposition’s defence with his dribbling runs.
Striker Irfan Jr displayed his predatory skills, scoring three wonderful goals.
But one player who won the hearts of everyone was the young defender Mubashar Ali. In the match against India, Pakistan were trailing 1-2. With just 15 second left, they were awarded a penalty corner. Mubashar, displaying remarkable composure, scored the equaliser. He was to repeat the rescue act in the next match against England. Again, with the scoreline 1-2 and less than three minutes to go, he availed himself of a penalty corner to save the day for his team. Mubashar had also netted the equaliser in the opening match against Wales which ended 1-1. With a total of four goals, he was Pakistan’s top scorer at the Commonwealth Games.
Muabashar comes from Gojra, which is the biggest nursery of hockey in Pakistan. “I was born in a hockey city but no one from my family played the game at the top level. I took to hockey late by the Gojra standards.
“I was a member of my school team at the age of 15 and joined late Aslam Roda‘s club,” Mubashar said.
Roda has probably groomed more internationals than anyone else in Pakistan.
“I learnt a lot from him and within a year, I was among Pakistan under-16s in a tournament in Singapore.”
There was no looking back. Mubashar appeared in Sultan of Johor Cup in 2014 and remained a part of the Pakistan junior squad for the next three years. Apart from the three editions of Sultan of Johor Cup, he also figured in Junior Asia Cup in 2015 and made a couple of tours of Europe.
“My dream was to gain the full Pakistan colour and it was fulfilled when I gained selection for the Asia Cup in October 2017. I scored my first international goal at the tri-nation tournament in Oman. The Commonwealth at Gold Coast was my third event for the national (senior) team.
“The team did well throughout. We couldn’t figure in the fifth-position match because of a technicality. With a little luck, we might even have made it to the semi-finals.”
The youngster was a bit evasive about his own show. “A lot of credit goes to the head coach Roelant Oltmans. He had paid special attention to all the drag flickers in the squad, Irfan Sr, Abubakr, Tauseeq and I. Apart from the training on the ground, we were shown the videos of drag flicks taken by us. Our strengths and weaknesses were explained to us.
“Then during the matches as well, Oltmans gave very timely and effective instructions. He had studied the rival defences, especially the goalkeepers. For that last penalty corner against India, Oltmans told me to go for a raised but not a very high flick on the goalkeeper’s right and it went in the goal beneath the diving goalkeeper’s right elbow. Similarly, during the half time in the match against England, Oltmans suggested to target the left side during the penalty corners. It went according to the script. My flick went into the cage off the left postman’s stick.”
Oltmans too had good words for the youngster. “The boy is remarkably calm even during crucial moments. That is the reason I chose him to take the penalty corners at those decisive junctures.”
Asked about his favourite players, Mubashar said: “I admire Pakistan’s former captain full back Zeeshan Ashraf for his defensive skills. I was lucky to have him as coach during my days with the national junior team and learnt a lot from him. For drag flicks, I study the videos of legendary Sohail Abbas; I have had a couple of extensive sessions with him. Among the present day penalty corner experts, I admire Argentina’s Gonzalo Peillat.”
About his future expectations, he said: “I know the team will look towards me to deliver during future assignments. I hope I will come up to their expectations. Importantly, after the confidence-booster at Gold Coast, we all hope that the national team’s performance graph continues to show the upward trend.”