A positive take on the last 8 months of Pakistan hockey

19 Dec 2018

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Pakistan players celebrate their 2-2 draw against India after their men's field hockey match between India and Pakistan at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. —AFP
Pakistan players celebrate their 2-2 draw against India after their men's field hockey match between India and Pakistan at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. —AFP

Pakistan's cricket team is notorious for its frustrating displays but it makes up for it with unexpected brilliance every once in a while. Our hockey team does not even do that.

The last time our men with sticks did something notable, it was a second-placed finish at the 2014 Hockey Champions Trophy. That podium finish was an anomaly though, a rare escape from the modern plight of Pakistan hockey.

The team started showing signs of deterioration soon after the golden generation of the 1980s and took a full-on nosedive post-2010; their stock fell so much that they didn't even qualify for the 2014 World Cup or the Olympics two years later.

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Mediocrity has come to characterise this team. They were last in the Champions Trophy and it didn't matter; they finished seventh at this year's Commonwealth Games and no hell broke loose.

All of these reinforce the notion that failure has become second nature to Pakistan hockey. The consistency of their disappointing displays means they cannot be relied on even springing an occasional surprise — not even once every blue moon.

But the whole point of this article is to challenge this very idea. And to do that, context is of utmost importance.

Proper perspective

Roughly 13 months ago, Pakistan lost 9-1 to hosts Australia at the International Festival of Hockey in what was the worst defeat in the history of Pakistan hockey.

Mind you, we had suffered maulings before but those were almost always compensated for immediately, allowing the fans to tolerate such losses. A case in point would be the 8-2 thrashing at the hands of England in the 2014 Champions Trophy. We eventually finished second in the tournament after losing to Germany in the final.

After the lop-sided loss to Australia at the Festival of Hockey, however, there were no reactions. In fact, we went on to lose the next four matches as well: to New Zealand once and Japan twice, which consigned us to last spot.

To both the casuals and the die-hard fans, this was indisputably the nadir of nadirs. Something had to be done, and it was the government and the hockey federation's job to cure the team of its many maladies.

Within a month, we had a new coaching staff and half the team had been replaced. Would, or did, this move resolve Pakistan’s woes? In the aftermath of the recent World Cup debacle, it may sound odd but surprisingly, it may have.

I should remind you: hockey still is the national sport

Dutchman Roelant Oltmans and his coaching staff turned individuals previously categorised as average to at least internationally competitive. He added fresher faces to the roster and carved out perhaps the team's best, or the least worst, version of recent times.

Raw facts, of course, show that we finished seventh at this year's Commonwealth Games in Australia in April and didn't win even a single game at the World Cup in November in India.

But what they don’t show, and what a contextual understanding does, is that at the Gold Coast, the side ranked 13th in the world, held the likes of England, India and Malaysia (ranked seventh, fifth, and 12th respectively) to draws and remained undefeated throughout the tournament.

This was merely five months after the 9-1 disaster in Sydney and just six months into the team's latest transformation kicked off. What did we expect? Another silver medal?

At this year's Champions Trophy in June, barring the game against India where a tactical error led to a 4-0 defeat, and the Netherlands game where we were outplayed in every regard, the young Pakistani outfit exceeded expectations in their four other appearances.

Defeating the world number two Argentina, holding Australia to a draw till the 56th minute — the same beast we leaked nine goals against less than a year ago — and almost defeating Belgium twice, should not be belittled, especially considering our recent results.

The Champions Trophy was thus, in context, a success.

Government apathy

But as expected, casual observers weren’t impressed. Unfortunately for the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF), some of those casual observers became members of the provisional government.

Suddenly, the Rs200 million in funds earmarked for the PHF were withheld, with the paradoxical justification given that the move was due to a series of poor performances and that the team would have to perform in order to receive the funds.

This becomes even more farcical because finances (or a lack thereof) is precisely the factor that is often cited for hockey's plight, and by depriving the team of those funds, the policymakers actually fanned the problems.

Since then, the cash-strapped PHF has made constant requests to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government for funding and institutional backing, but to no avail.

Hasn’t apathy, not failure, come to characterise Pakistan hockey?

These bureaucratic hurdles resulted in Oltmans' exit just a month before the start of the World Cup, a chastening blow to the already fragile state of hockey.

Thus, at the biggest event of the year, our players — after their strike threats failed — went unpaid. This was after what happened at the Asian Games where the team would surely have missed out had it not been for the PHF clearing the team's dues out of its own pockets.

The powers that be did not budge even after the team jointly won the gold medal at the Asia Champions Trophy in Oman in October.

The team, whose disappointing showing at the World Cup has led to the formation of a committee, almost didn't go to the tournament because of empty coffers. Only when Javed Afridi came to the PHF’s rescue did their trip to India became possible.

While hockey fans should be grateful to Afridi, no national kit should have the Pakistani logo on one side and the Peshawar Zalmi logo on the other.

Showing support

For the last eight months, I have actively followed the PHF’s struggles and furiously searched for livestreams to support the team in the most basic way possible: spectating.

At the World Cup, I witnessed Pakistan defend brilliantly against Germany in the presence of a hostile crowd, till eventually they let one slip; there was nothing to be ashamed of that 1-0 loss.

Days later, we held Malaysia — a side now coached by Oltmans — to a 1-1 draw; again, no mean feat considering our troubles.

The Netherlands and Belgium did brush us aside, but then they're the Netherlands and Belgium — one won the World Cup, the other almost won the World Cup.

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The mainstream media did not broadcast the tournament, so not everyone has the contextual understanding of this side.

But the few of us who saw these two games online would know that the combined 10-1 scoreline does not reflect the potency of Aleem Bilal’s penalty corners, or take into account Imran Butt’s otherworldly saves.

This team, under the most trying circumstances, played in India and held its own before being overpowered by two behemoths. Of course, the general public wouldn't know, the government wouldn't care.

Never before has a government and the Pakistani society been more apathetic to the hockey cause, which I should remind you still is the national sport.

Discarded, forgotten and underappreciated — alas hasn’t apathy, not failure, come to characterise Pakistan hockey?


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