It seems that Pakistan hockey is set to complete a full circle; the 1994 world champions with a total of four World Cup trophies in their showcase are set to follow their abysmal 2010 wooden spoon showing with sitting out the tournament in 2014, unless the Green Shirts conjure up their spirit of old and annex the Asia Cup next month.
The recently-concluded Hockey World League (qualification round for World Cup) in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, was a golden opportunity for Pakistan to book a place in the second-biggest hockey competition of all and after a steady and hopeful start the first hurdle in the knockout phase proved too much for them. The Green Shirts who made a string of comebacks in the first round were on the receiving end of one as the Koreans mustered up a stunning show from two goals down to edge out the former world champions 4-3 in the quarter-finals.
The qualifying competition was handing out three slots for the quadrennial tournament hence it was an ideal opportunity for Pakistan to book their place in an event they have dominated in the years gone by. Once again though the players went through an apparent ‘brain freeze’ with veteran Shakeel Abbasi missing out on a penalty stroke towards the end of the match. The team was a goal down at this juncture and the squandered opportunity never returned sealing Pakistan’s fate with a touch of cruelty.
The team management blamed the absence of seniors Waseem Ahmed and Rashid besides the lack of finishing by the forwards as the primary reasons for the disappointment.
One feels that head coach Akhtar Rasool once again is trying to dodge the bullet rather than owning the failure of his team. The hockey great has had his fair share of critics since he took over coaching of the national team last year.
Many believe that he is not in the greatest physical condition and lacks the agility of the modern day coaches/managers who are involved with the players throughout the match as well as practice and strategising sessions.
Akhtar Rasool and his now sacked lieutenant Hanif Khan have been through a rough patch to say the least as the disappointing results of the national team have taken a toll. While Hanif has had the axe fall on him, Akhtar Rasool has been retained. Many believe his influence at the national level more than his coaching pedigree helped in his retention for the Asia Cup.
‘Players aren’t learning’
When asked about the abject performance, Hanif was candid in his response. “I wish I knew what the problem was in Johar Bahru the team was creating chances but simply failed to convert them in goals, what can the management do?
“Over the years the same problem has been plaguing us yet it seems that the players aren’t learning. The plan is in place and one should question the coach if the opportunities are not being created. If they are being created yet not being utilised there isn’t much that one can do.”
Hanif agreed that the performance of the defence left a lot to be desired. He feels that the two goalkeepers, Imran Butt and Imran Shah, are not good enough at the international level and some urgent steps need to be taken in this regard.
“The Pakistan Hockey Federation [PHF] needs to start a camp for goalkeepers in Karachi and Lahore. We need to identify a back-up lot since the two Imrans have simply not delivered. Ahmed Alam the former goal-keeping coach worked really hard on the duo, however, they do not have the class to compete at the international level and often fail to perform, especially in pressure situations.”
Hanif is also critical of PHF’s apparent lack of interest in promoting hockey. He feels that the current domestic structure is well below the standards elsewhere in the world and as a result the bench strength for the senior team is almost non-existent.
“The so-called academies have failed to produce talent, we need not shy away from the facts, there is a real dearth of hockey talent in the country. The need of the hour is to invest in the domestic hockey scene, club hockey needs to be revived. Unless we step up to the plate and realise what the problems are we would be living in a fool’s paradise as no magic wand is in sight.”
Can a new coach change things?
The former goal-scoring machine claimed that he was ready to hand over the reins of the team but feels that his replacement, Tahir Zaman, is not going to deliver either.
“What will the replacement management or coach [Tahir Zaman] do? I don’t think that in the current hockey set-up that is in place in the country results can differ much. We need to overhaul our policies if we are to achieve the desired results.”
The secretary of PHF Asif Bajwa acknowledged the effort put in by Hanif Khan. However he clarified that the decision to oust the former forward was made on the basis of reports received by the head coach and after a thorough assessment of his performances in recent months.
“Hanif Khan has been a tremendous servant of Pakistan hockey, and just like any outgoing official he is aggrieved at this ouster. We have not shunned him completely and in due course we will offer him another role that we feel he can be good at. We retained Akhtar Rasool since we believe he can make a good combination with Tahir Zaman and take the team forward. Let us all unite since this is a critical phase for the team and we are making our plans keeping national interests in mind,” says Bajwa.
Meanwhile, Tahir Zaman, who is currently one amongst a handful of certified coaches available in the country, feels that all efforts must be made to ensure that Pakistan books its place in the World Cup. He thinks that the current pool of players have to deliver at the continental event.
“These players who took part in the Hockey World League have to deliver at the Asia Cup. I want to help make a plan for them that will ensure a 100pc performance. We have a short span of time before the tournament, hence all our energies should be channeled towards the eventual goal.”
Tahir, a member of the 1994 World Cup-winning team, added that he had a specific role in Johor Bahru; he was working as a consultant and was providing feedback to the management on different teams and their strategies based on his vast experience and exposure at the international level.
“Reports about a tussle between me and Hanif Bhai are baseless. We were working in a cordial atmosphere. My job was to give them input on various aspects, the final decision-making was their prerogative. I did not intervene in their decision-making and am sure Akhtar Bhai and Hanif Bhai were comfortable in their roles.”
Tahir concurred with Hanif Khan’s views on goalkeeping. He thinks that the only way forward is to create competition for the pivotal spot. “If the junior team management gives us positive feedback on goalkeepers like Mazhar Abbas, we will induct them in our training camps. It goes without saying that our defence of short corners, especially the goalkeeping has left a lot to be desired. We need to work hard on this aspect if we are to do any good in the Asia Cup.”
Olympians reunite to oust PHF management While Tahir and the PHF hierarchy are making one last-ditch effort to redeem themselves, a group of former Olympians who have been strong critics of the PHF have once again joined hands in their quest to oust the present regime.
Led by Shahnaz Sheikh the group includes stalwarts like Islahuddin Siddiqui, Samiullah, Qamar Ibrahim, Qamar Zia, Rashid ul Hassan, Waseem Feroz, Shahbaz Senior amongst others. The group feels that PHF’s top honchos, Qasim Zia and Asif Bajwa, have failed to deliver and should be held accountable for the ordinary performances of the national team that is now on the brink of missing out on the World Cup tournament for the first time in their prolific hockey history.
Shahnaz and his group are once again approaching the government and want intervention by the prime minister to what they feel is the absolutely necessary step in order to protect the legacy of the national sport.
“Forget the Hockey World League, what has the federation delivered in the last five years? Where do we stand now? We won four out of the first eight World Cups. Now after finishing in an ignominious last position in 2010 we are set to miss out on the next one barring a miracle. Who is responsible for this mess and why are they not being held accountable for the plummeting standard of the game?” questioned a seemingly perturbed Shahnaz.
He added that the federation’s academies have been nothing more than an eyewash and stringent measures across the country are the only hope of saving the national sport from a complete collapse.
“PHF claims that 19 academies are operational all over the country, but we want to know what is the result? What have these academies achieved over the years? The talent pool seems to be decreasing by the minute and unfortunately we don’t see the officials raising their hands and accepting their failure. They need to make way for different people and accept that their tenure has been nothing but failure for the sport in the country.”
Shahnaz also feels that the team management needs to be replaced. He dismissed Hanif Khan’s notion that a new set of coaches and manager also can’t do much with the present lot.
“Let new people take over the reins of hockey, especially the senior team. We are confident of delivering and would take some urgent steps to improve our standing in the game which has taken a massive hit in the last few years.”
Nothing less than a win in the final of the Asia Cup to take place in Ipoh, Malaysia, from Aug 24 can book their place for Netherlands in 2014.
One doesn’t know what the outcome of the Olympians ‘campaign’ is going to be, however, it goes without saying that a combined effort from all quarters is imperative. An average hockey fan doesn’t care who is running the affairs, he wants results on the field and unfortunately the results have been steadily veering from bad to worse.
It is pertinent to mention here that the duo of Qasim Zia and Asif Bajwa have been stating for long that they are here to reclaim the lost glory of Pakistan hockey. Unfortunately, other than the Asian Games gold medal in 2010, the claims have remained mere claims. More often the results have been embarrassing to say the least with the Green Shirts struggling to win against second tier teams like Malaysia, Korea, India, England, New Zealand, etc.
The super powers of world hockey — Australia, Germany and the Netherlands — have made the Green Shirts their favourite whipping boys off late with Australia not settling in for anything less than tennis score-like thrashings.
A dying legacy
Pakistanis have an emotional connection with hockey; the older generation still talks and recall with great delight the spellbinding achievements of the past. The Green Shirts have been easily the most successful team in the sport winning three Olympic golds, four World Cups, three Champions Trophy titles and countless medals at the Asian level.
On the flip side, the present generation only has tales of the past to live on. Their love or connection with hockey is only going to be strengthened when they actually see the return of the lost glory. The present regime needs to finally deliver or relinquish their charge for the ones who claim that they have the solution to the predicament and are set to sort it all out!
The writer is a sports anchor/reporter at DawnNews.