At the recently-concluded Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, Pakistan’s hockey team finished last, after losing five of their six matches. How they won the first match against Argentina, is the real question, not the five losses.
It seems as if it is not about winning anymore. It’s all about losing gracefully and coming up with excuses. Whether or not they are ready to participate in the upcoming London Olympics, the Pakistan hockey team and its management have surely accumulated a nice list of excuses for face-saving, should the nation question them or the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) when they fail at the Games , which are less than two months away now. The Sultan Azlan Shah Cup seems like a horrible trailer of things to come.
The players are confused and unsure about their roles, thanks to the constant experimentation by the selectors. While other Olympic participants have kick-started their preparations and are looking to peak at London, Pakistan is still struggling with putting together a respectable team, which is not likely to happen until the few miserable ‘rebels,’ who dared to make a quick buck by opting to play in the unsanctioned World Series of Hockey (WSH) in India are allowed back into the squad. Here, too, the PHF can always make them look like villains who preferred money over playing for Pakistan.
Another possible excuse could be the absence of a blue turf in Pakistan. The installation of the Olympic Park-style turf has been an on-going controversy in itself. The team manager was quick to lay blame on the surface after the team’s first loss in Malaysia. One wonders how other teams coped with the “bouncy and slippery” turf, which had “made things difficult” for his team.
While the manager has, at times, been brave enough to face the media, the coach has rarely had anything to say about the dismal performances. By sidelining Michel van den Heuvel and bringing in former captain Olympian Akhtar Rasool seemed to be an indication of things to come. While the man certainly means well and has Pakistan hockey’s best interests at heart, but there remains an unshakable image of him stumbling off the field after an exhibition match. Almost three-and-a-half years ago, when the Pakistan junior hockey team’s clash against their Indian counterparts was put off by the Indian government, the PHF hastily arranged for an exhibition match between the juniors and the former Olympians at the Hockey Club of Pakistan (HCP).
All of the game’s greats except Akhtar Rasool donned the hurriedly-stitched kits to take on junior team. Akhtar just couldn’t fit into a pair of shorts and shirt before he came in for a couple of minutes to pass the ball to his teammates before getting breathless to no longer be able to continue. Using his hockey stick as a walking stick, he left the field as quickly as he had entered it. So if this is the fitness level of the chief coach, one can imagine how he will be able to motivate and push the boys to lift their fitness standards.
Hence, the team that reached the final of the tournament in 2011 was seen picking up the wooden spoon in Ipoh this time around as New Zealand lifted the cup with Argentina as the runners up and India finishing third. Pakistan, after beating Argentina 4-2 in the initial game, just crashed. They were beaten by New Zealand (3-1), South Korea (4-0), Malaysia (3-2), India (2-1) and Great Britain (2-1). Sadly it all happened under the star player Sohail Abbas’s captaincy.