Conceding 37 goals in six matches, scoring a mere four themselves – these are statistics that would haunt and deflate any international team. Yet the Pakistan women’s hockey team was all smiles after the Asian Hockey Federation (AHF) Cup that concluded on December 16 in Singapore.
It is not that the drubbing didn’t hurt them; it is the opportunity of representing the nation at the international level amid the prevailing situation that was immensely satisfying.
Most of them fought against all odds to ensure that Pakistan takes field in a senior women’s hockey event after six long years.
Before the event, a month-long training camp was held under the supervision of coach Mohammad Usman (former captain) and assistant coach Irfan Senior, and the duo accompanied the team to Singapore along with team manager Tanzeela Akhtar.
The tournament, besides Pakistan, included teams like Hong Kong China, Chinese Taipei, Sri Lanka, Thailand and hosts Singapore. The target was qualification for next year’s Asia Cup with two spots up for grabs.
The women in green had an onerous task ahead of them yet started brightly holding the Thai team to a goalless first half in their opening encounter.
However, the rampant Thai team was all over them in the second half seizing a 5-0 win. Hong Kong China also had an easy 5-0 win against Pakistan.
In the third match Chinese Taipei, regarded as the favourite for the title, scored a 12-1 win. The match against the hosts gave the players their best moment of the tournament.
During the opening exchanges half-back Shahida Raza, regarded the linchpin of the team, made a dash from the centre line on the left flank, she dodged three opposition players before feeding forward Hina Kanwal with a pass at the top of the D on the right side, Hina struck a scintillating shot that sailed into the net and there was delirium in the Pakistani camp.
Unfortunately, the joy was short lived as the hosts walked away with a 4-2 win.
The last league match for the national outfit was against lowly Sri Lanka, the islanders though were hardly ‘lowly’ as they coasted to an 8-1 win, while the fifth position play-off against the hosts was a 0-3 failure.
At the end of the seemingly fruitless campaign I had the opportunity of talking to the players at their dug out. None of the players shrieked, they were clear in their minds that they are down but not out!
The mainstays like Shahida and defender Nadia Kazim hailing from Quetta claimed that the team was not willing to throw in the towel despite the odds.
The duo pleaded for exposure at the highest level. Nadia stated that for the first time in her career the national forwards made penetrations in opposition half at such consistency and this was all due to the influence of seasoned coaches.
Shahida, nicknamed “Chintoo” by her teammates, was bursting with energy in every match, many a times she went past three to four players yet, other than the Singapore miracle goal, was barely rewarded for her efforts.
Born and bred in the mountains of Quetta her stamina and skills are second to none.
“I am not tired, I can play another tournament starting now!” she repeated more than once at the dugout. Like Nadia her complain is the lack of exposure.
“There isn’t much left to do now, once we go home we will be based in our respective cities for many months and other than running around, would have no hockey practice. We need an academy, a series of national and international tournaments; trust in us and we will deliver,” promised Chintoo.
In the squad a 15-year-old girl hailing from Bahawalpur impressed the coaching staff greatly.
Maria Sabir was overjoyed at earning the right of representing the nation and claimed that her family had no qualms about her interest in the sport.
“I have even succeeded in getting a separate room back home for my training regime,” Maria revealed with a beaming smile. She added that her desire was to adorn the national kit for many years yet and become an inspiration for girls in her laid back city.
Sehrish Ghumman, another player from Lahore, vowed to launch a hockey academy for talented girls from across the country.
“My aim is to launch an academy in the name of my mother, I know that I am 25 now and cannot continue playing for long yet want to stay attached to the sport for the years ahead,” Sehrish, who was used sparingly in the tournament, said.
Usman and Irfan Sr have both been part of gold medal winning squads in the men’s arena; both feel that the girls can improve by playing more and more.
“You cannot expect us to work miracles in such a short span of time, the need of the hour is the promotion of the game amongst women all over the country and establishment of proper training facilities. If these players play with junior male players their standard would improve dramatically,” Usman, a member of the 1994 World Cup winning squad, observed.
The results are a clear reflection of the predicament of sportswomen in Pakistan. The challenge for these players can be gauged by the fact that they are not allowed to adorn skirts at national events but are forced to wear them at international level as per the laws governing the game.
The training camps are generally held under cover as the national federation fears the wrath of some of the hardliners who have already labelled sports taboo for women in the country.
In such a scenario one can only appreciate these players for taking the field with bravado.
Let us not forget that hockey is in our blood and these players have some of the greatest names of the game who hailed from Pakistan as their inspiration. Let us stick with them and encourage them and before we know they would have turned the tide.