Pakistan possesses a treasure trove of sporting memories and hockey is one of the chief reasons for it. For decades Pakistan rode roughshod over their rivals, winning major international hockey titles almost at will. Who could forget the 1960 Olympic triumph in Rome or the 1994 World Cup victory in Sydney? But unfortunately a hockey match in Melbourne last week brought back memories of a different kind. The venue was the Melbourne State Netball Hockey Centre and the event was the Four-Nation International Hockey Festival. It was a complete mismatch as Australia hammered Pakistan by an astonishing margin of 9-1. It was Pakistan’s worst ever defeat on the hockey field surpassing their 9-2 loss at the hands of The Netherlands in the 2006 Champions Trophy in the Spanish city of Terrassa.
Pakistan’s disastrous showing in Melbourne took me back to the year 2000 when Australia enthralled their home fans by hammering Pakistan 6-3 in the playoff for the bronze medal in the Sydney Olympic Games. I was there and vividly remember that everything went against the plan for the Pakistanis. They just didn’t know what hit them. I’m sure that they must have felt the same way after the Melbourne thrashing last Wednesday.
However, Pakistan were a different team 17 years ago. At that time they had a decent attack, a reliable defence but the prime reason why they were counted among the title contenders at the Olympics was because of the scoring prowess of a young drag flicker. Sohail Abbas, who went on to become world hockey’s highest goal scorer of all-time, was already a hockey star of international repute. He was instrumental in Pakistan’s ascent to the semi-finals of the 2000 Olympic hockey tournament.
Pakistan began their title campaign on a shaky note in Sydney as they were held 2-2 by Canada but bounced back by demolishing Great Britain 8-1 in what was easily the most one-sided encounter of the tournament. They held Germany 1-1 but failed to shrug aside Malaysia in a tough contest that ended in a 2-2 draw. Pakistan needed to win their last game against the mighty Dutch to progress to the last four. Not many gave them any chance of an upset result but with Sohail in his element Pakistan blanked the Dutch 2-0. In the semis, Pakistan were up against South Korea and this time many thought that the Greenshirts will have a cake walk to the final, their first since 1984. But the Koreans neutralised Sohail with some shrewd, courageous defending and Pakistan lost 0-1. That turned out to be Pakistan’s last appearance in an Olympic semi-final.
Up next was the game which came to my mind after going through Pakistan’s 9-1 defeat in Melbourne last week. Having lost a golden chance to feature in an Olympic final, Pakistan’s last opportunity to save face was to pick up the bronze medal before heading home. But their opponents in the playoff for the third position were Australia. The home team had entered the tournament as title favourites but fell to The Netherlands in the semifinals. But it seemed that the defeat against the Dutch didn’t shatter their morale. The playoff for the bronze medal is easily one of the most memorable hockey games I have ever witnessed primarily because of the way Aussies played it. It was perhaps the last time that Pakistan had the spine to stand up against top flight teams like The Netherlands, Germany and Australia.
Personally, I believe that the game marked the beginning of the end of Pakistan as a major hockey-playing nation. Despite the fact that the Pakistan had world class players in their team and had beaten sides like The Netherland, who went on to win the Sydney Olympic title, it seemed that the Australians were completely out of their league.
Buoyed up by a vocal crowd that had packed the Hockey Centre at the Olympic Park, the Aussies played electrifying hockey right from the word go. It was an awe-inspiring performance as they kept up the tempo for the entire 70-minute duration never allowing Pakistan to make a comeback in the match. Pakistan were outclassed that day not because they played badly but because the Aussies played the sort of game that the hockey world had seldom witnessed before. They were too fit and too fast. Pakistan fought valiantly but it was a lost cause. The Australians executed their set pieces with clinical precision and moved in the field like race horses. It was like a race between a Ferrari and a Sonata. Pakistan ended that game with a brilliant goal from their key striker Kashif Jawwad but left the field with their heads hanging in shame. Seventeen years on, they have yet to lift them up. Why?
Personally, I believe they never learnt their lesson. They didn’t really learn from the 6-3 loss in the match for the bronze medal or any other big loss that came after it. And unless they change the way they react after every disaster, Pakistan won’t learn from the recent 9-1 loss against Australia or the shock defeat against Japan in Melbourne last week.
Back in 2000, Pakistan’s officials privately blamed Sohail Abbas for his failure to score against the Koreans in the semi-finals. “We wouldn’t have had to play against Australia had we beaten the Koreans (in the semifinals). We would be playing Holland in the final and who knows what had happened in that game considering we had beaten the Dutch in our pool game,” said one senior team official after that playoff for the bronze medal in Sydney. All he could do was target Sohail Abbas and his inability to score against the Koreans. He wasn’t willing to accept the fact that more than Sohail it was the team’s coaching staff that was responsible for the defeat against South Korea. They were unable to come out with plan B after the Koreans neutralised Sohail’s threat as a short corner specialist. The tendency of our officials to blame the players instead of looking for the real reasons behind a poor result is one of the key reasons why Pakistan hockey has slumped over the years.
Pakistan’s hockey authorities will have to accept the fact that their players aren’t world class any more. They lag far behind most of the other teams both in terms of fitness and skills. In recent times, the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) has taken many steps to put our hockey on the right track but unless it acknowledges the fundamental flaws in our system nothing will really change. The fact is that like the rest of the country, Pakistan hockey is still living in the past. Over the years, hockey has evolved and is now a sport where speed and stamina is far more important than natural skills. Our players need to be fitter and faster. Another important aspect is coaching. With all due respect, our coaches aren’t equipped to turn an under-achieving team into a world-beating side. They are mostly old-school and want to keep trying obsolete methods in the hope of producing better results. That’s why nothing changes even when the PHF makes sweeping changes in the team management every now and then. Pakistan will have to bring in foreign coaches. Back in 2004, our team was slowly but surely moving towards the right track when Dutch coach Roelant Oltmans was at the helm. Since his sacking, Pakistan’s hockey never really recovered.
I know that the PHF top brass is sincere in its efforts to revive our hockey. But unless it starts taking concrete steps in the right direction, nothing will change. What happened in Melbourne will happen again and again.