Pakistan have flown to Antwerp, Belgium, pretty much under the radar.
There was hardly a fuss as the team departed the country with a spot at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games up for grabs. After suffering the shame of not making it to the World Cup for the first time in the game's history, qualification for Rio is being as seen the make-or-break moment for Pakistan hockey.
The team is in Antwerp to play the World Hockey League Semi Finals and finishing in the top three would give the Greenshirts a direct ticket to the Olympics.
Does the Pakistan squad possess enough potential to harbour hopes of making the top three?
The prospects are indeed tough, but not impossible. Pakistan’s weakest link is their forward line. It has been their Achilles heel for some time now and the coaching staff and players need to ensure they make most of the opportunities the midfield conjures up for them.
Players like Waqas Sharif, Omar Bhutta and Kashif Ali are experienced but lack quality.
Ever see a team doing wonders without a strong forward line?
Though Shafqat Rasool, Rizwan Senior and Ali Shan, too, are decent forward line players, they cannot change the course of the game on their own. Others need to excel in their game as well.
The trick is pretty simple: the forward line needs to formulate a combined game-play strategy and must move together when attacking. They must avoid trying to go all the way on their own and not forget that hockey is a team game.
This, in no way, means players shouldn’t show their individual skills on the field. They surely can, provided there is enough room for it.
The primary task for the forward line should be to keep maximum possession through combination of short passes as it can turn out to be effective in creating penalty corner opportunities.
Pakistan’s attacking penalty corner has been paying dividends, courtesy exceptional variations on the top circle, for which all credit must go to the coaching staff.
|The tournament will be a big test for goalkeeper Imran Butt. — AFP
High quality midfield
Pakistan's strength lies in its deep defence and a quality midfield due to the presence of veteran skipper Mohammad Imran and Mohammad Irfan, whereas the inclusion of power players such as Rashid Mahmood, Fareed Ahmed, Mohammad Touseeq Arshad and the aggressive Ammad Shakeel Butt adds weight to the middle.
There is no doubt that if they manage to keep their shape the midfield will not only provided stability to the back and also set up the forwards.
The man that matters
Imran Butt alone shouldn’t be held responsible for the poor goalkeeping which has seen Pakistan concede many goals in recent times. He did a fine job at the 2014 Asian Games, but seemed to be struggling in the Champions Trophy the same year.
Imran needs more training from professionals parallel to those being provided to other nation’s goalkeepers. The regime must match modern techniques and rules of the game.
The federation’s decision to bring in Mazhar Abbas as the second goalkeeper is a wise move, keeping in view the poor performance showed by the other reserve Ali Amjad during the Champions Trophy.
Amjad’s poor patch had continued in the tour Down Under, followed by an unimpressive stint at the domestic championship in Sialkot.
Imran, being the prime-choice goalkeeper, should step up and take responsibility. He should be clear while making decisions during the game and play fearlessly without taking much pressure.
No excuse this time
Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) and the coaching staff has ensured maximum training for the team ahead of the World Hockey League Semi Finals.
In the past eight months, Pakistan participated in the Champions Trophy where they ended up winning silver after 20 years. Right after the Champions Trophy, the Greeshirts travelled Down Under to play a four-nation series and several practice matches.
Pakistan then toured South Korea for a Test series, but only played two of four matches scheduled due to umpiring controversies.
Amid the financial mess, the federation must be appreciated for managing to organise matches for the national team before Olympic qualifiers.
Pakistan is placed with world champions Australia, Asian champions India, Poland and France. First major step for the Greenshirts here would be to qualify for the quarterfinals by finishing in top four in their pool.
Pakistan team has trained extensively over the past eight months, and there should not be any excuse of less international exposure or training.
National team also had a good training camp before leaving for Antwerp, and it’s safe to hope that the coaching staff must have worked to identify weak areas of the team: forward line and goalkeeping.
Having said all that, Pakistan, as a unit, must understand what's at stake when they put on that green jersey. They cannot afford to make history again for all the wrong reasons.
Salman Akbar is a veteran goal-keeper who made his debut for Pakistan’s hockey team in 2001. Termed by Olympian Shahid Ali Khan as one of the most hard-working players in the game, Akbar has won the 2003/2004 Champions Trophy bronze medal, 2005 Rabo Trophy, 2006 Commonwealth Games silver medal and the 2010 Asian Games gold medal with Pakistan. He has 230 international caps and represented Pakistan at two Olympic Games and three World Cups.