It was the first of its kind: a Pakistani national age group hockey team competing in the national championship outside the country.
Pakistan’s under-18 team recently participated in the highly competitive Australian under-18 National Championships in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. The other nine were Australia’s state and territorial sides.
Pakistan began well, defeating the defending champions Victoria 2-1. But they lost the next match against the hot favourites New South Wales 2-3.
However, they lifted their game to win the next three ties and made it to the four-team playoffs.
The Green-shirts were at a handicap here. Although Pakistan had won their pool, New South Wales, the other qualifier from the pool, carried the three points for their win against Pakistan. Likewise, Western Australia, one of the playoff qualifiers from the other pool also had three points in the kitty. So Pakistan had to win both the playoff games against Western Australia and Tasmania to get into the final. The lads rose magnificently to the challenge. They brushed aside the hosts Tasmania 5-1 and defeated the strong Western Australian side, in what was the virtual semi-final, by two goals to nil.
In the final, Pakistan again came across New South Wales who had had defeated them in the pool game. By now, the visitors were quite battle hardened and confident. That was displayed on the ground as the young Green-shirts controlled the game from the start and ran up to a 3-0 lead by the 44th minute. The NSW managed to make it 2-3 via a penalty corner and a penalty stroke. But with just five minutes left, they failed to find the equaliser.
The boys’ Australian journey is not yet over. All the 21 boys have stayed back as they have been engaged by the Australian clubs participating in the states’ leagues, mostly by the Grade 1 sides. The leagues will continue till August.
Their head coach Kamran Ashraf is satisfied with their performance. “It was a wonderful show. The performance graph showed upward curve throughout and we peaked for the final,” said the former centre forward, who scored eight of the 12 goals in Pakistan’s last World Cup triumph (1994). TNS did an interview with Kamran. Following are some excerpts.
TNS: When the team lost the second game, did you feel apprehensive?
Kamran Ashraf: Not at all. It was a closely fought encounter and my boys had matched them in fitness and all round play. In fact, it was good that they learnt to play under pressure. In the playoff phase too, we were under pressure as Pakistan needed to win both the games to enter the final. The team responded well.
TNS: What were the strong areas of this squad?
KA: Defence is often regarded as Pakistani squads’ weak link. But in these championships, our defence was the most impressive — goalkeeping and deep defence.
TNS: Who were the most impressive boys?
KA: Goalkeeper Waqar Younis, defender Rizwan Ali, and midfielders Moin Shakeel, Adeel and Junaid Manzoor were outstanding. Among the forwards, Naveed Alam, Ifraz and Ghzanfar were impressive.
TNS: Areas still needing special attention?
KA: Penalty Corner: conversion of own PCs as well as defending the opponents’ PCs.
TNS: What makes Australian domestic competitions so special that other countries send their national squads? After all, it is only a domestic event; all the other sides were Australia’s state or territorial sides.
KA: Australia is a great sporting nation. Their achievements in so many disciplines are tremendous — unbelievable for a nation with a population of just 24 million.
Sports are everywhere in this country and so well organised.
In hockey, the Aussies are the reigning World Champions. There are annual National Championships for under-13, under-15, under-18 and under-21 teams. Therefore, most of the boys in these states’ under-18 sides had five to six years experience in competing in the age group nationals. Then the preparations of a state team are comparable to those of national squads. They have the services of professional coaches and physiotherapists. Serious preparations for the national under-18 started a couple of months back. Apart from the training sessions, the state teams played exchange matches with other sides. Indian, Malaysian and New Zealand’s national age group sides have been figuring in Australia’s various age group national championships.
TNS: Something about the players staying back in Australia?
KA: This is another first. All the 21 members of this Pakistan under-18 squad have been engaged by Australian states’ clubs. Most of them have been contracted with the Grade 1 teams. Some are appearing in the Grade 2. The states’ club championships will run till August with the playoffs in September. PHF had talked to hockey Australia. However, we were apprehensive whether all the members of the squad will be picked. Plus, we were not sure if they would get good teams to play for. After watching Pakistani boys’ performance in the national under-18s, the clubs picked up the whole bunch and most were taken up by the top tier teams, mostly in and around Sydney.
TNS: What facilities would the clubs provide to these players?
KA: They all have been provided with full board and lodging. The players in the Grade 1 will also be paid. In addition, PHF in collaboration with Hockey Australia has arranged special coaching sessions for Pakistan players under renowned trainers including Michael Nobbs. The boys will also be attending grooming classes and lessons in spoken English. Next year, we plan to enter this team, which will be under 19 then, in Australia’s National Under-21 Championships.