Pakistan finished second after a pulsating final against India at the recent Men’s Hockey Junior Asia Cup at Salalah, Oman. Throughout the tourney, the Green Shirts put on an impressive display. The team included seven players who have also represented the national senior team. But it was one of the juniors who turned out to be a surprise package at Salalah.
Striker Abdul Rehman was declared the ‘Man of Match’ in two games, including the semi-final against Malaysia. He also finished as the joint-top scorer of the tournament with nine goals.
‘It’s not how big you are. It’s how big you play’, so they say. The 19-year-old striker’s journey in hockey is a fascinating story.
“I come from Kot Radha Kishan, a small town in Kasur District, where there is only one hockey club, the City Club,” says Abdul Rehman. “I started playing at a very early age, as a couple of my uncles used to play there,” he adds.
And Abdul Rehman became the first player from Kot Radha Kishan to gain selection for Pakistan. For this, he gives a lot of credit to the Dar Hockey Academy here. Five boys of the Dar Hockey Academy were members of the Pakistan team at the 2023 Men’s Hockey Junior Asia Cup.
The 19-year-old Abdul Rehman is knocking on the doors of the national hockey team. Who is this young striker and how did he get here?
“The older players at the City Club saw something special in me. That was when my uncles took me to the Dar Hockey Academy in Lahore, which is located about 55 kilometres from Kot Radha Kishan. There the Academy officials took a sort of a trial before my joining, at the age of only 10,” he says.
“Of course, my parents were apprehensive. First of all owing to my age and, second, they wanted me to concentrate on my education. So they called me back home after a few months.
“But then Dar Hockey Academy’s Chief Administrator Irfan Butt and their coach Waqas Butt came to Kot Radha Kishan to speak to my family. They told my parents that I possessed the talent to go places. Eventually, they agreed to send me back,” he says.
“The Dar Hockey Academy hostel had boys from all over Pakistan. The Academy takes care of everything, such as boarding, lodging and schooling. Highly competent coaches train us daily on the synthetic turf of the National Hockey Stadium. We play matches against local and outstation teams. Many of us have also been recruited by departments and we represent them in the tournaments, including the national senior and junior championships,” Abdul Rehman explains.
His precocious talents also soon got recognition when he represented the Punjab team during the national under-16 championships in Khairpur in 2017.
Abdul Rehman’s first tour abroad was also with the Dar Hockey Academy. In 2019, the Academy colts toured the powerhouses of world hockey, Holland and Belgium.
“That tour did a world of good for my confidence. We played against several club sides, some of which were in the top tier of the Dutch League Hoofdklasse Hockey. It is universally acknowledged as the most competitive domestic hockey competition. In Belgium, one match was against KHC Dragons, the biggest club of the country. I did reasonably well, and netted a few goals, too,” he says.
Back here, Abdul Rehman’s game also caught the attention of some departmental teams. “In 2020, Mari Petroleum Company Limited [MPCL] approached me. The same year I represented them at the national juniors, where we ended up third. The following year, it was the nationals for the first time in MPCL colours.
“Now, a few months back, I joined Wapda, the most successful team on the domestic circuit in recent times,” he beams.
In 2021, Abdul Rehman was called up for the national junior camp. “The camp was for the 2021 Men’s FIH Hockey Junior World Cup. I consider myself lucky to be selected for the big event played in the Indian city of Bhubaneswar. But I was a reserve player for most of the time, and was sent out on the pitch for one or two spells only, of five to seven minutes during the matches,” he says.
“In June 2022, I was named in the Pakistan team for the FIH Hockey5s Tournament in Lausanne, Switzerland. There, I was fielded regularly in the two-day event, involving five national teams,” he says.
Still at an early stage of his career, the teenager already has had a stint as a professional player in a foreign land. “In September last year, I played for the Bousher Hockey Club in Muscat, Oman,” he says.
It was at the 2023 Men’s Hockey Junior Asia Cup where Abdul Rehman’s scoring prowess shot him to fame. “I was confident to put up a good show, but I exceeded even my own expectations, to be honest,” he says. “In our second match against Thailand, I scored five of Pakistan’s nine goals and was declared the Man of Match.
“The atmosphere in the pool game against India was electrifying, with both teams getting great support from a large number of expats there,” he continues. “The 1-1 draw against the favourites boosted our morale. In the last pool match against Japan, even a draw would have been sufficient for a place in the semi-finals, which also meant qualification for the Junior World Cup. But we won 3-2 after a well-contested encounter.
“Malaysia, our opponents in the semi-final, are ranked much higher than us. Hence, beating them 6-2 felt wonderful. I got a hat-trick and the second Man of Match title was like icing on the cake,” he shares in a single breath.
Coming to the much-talked-about final, Abdul Rehman says that the stadium at Salalah was almost full in the pool game between Pakistan and India. And for the final, it was overflowing with a crowd of 15,000.
“The Governor of the Dhofar province was the chief guest. The ambassadors of Pakistan and India, as well as the FIH president were also in attendance. Both the teams were getting vociferous support from their respective compatriots, with many waving their national flags. I had only seen this on television during the cricket matches. And to be playing in such an atmosphere was a surreal feeling,” he shares.
India dominated the first 20 minutes and led 2-0. “We gradually found our feet and gave an improved display. The lead was reduced in the third quarter. Pakistan was the better side in the last quarter but the equaliser eluded us, despite open play chances and penalty-corners coming our way.
“Later, I was presented with the award of the ‘Top Goal Scorer’. Having lost the final after a great fight, the award was, however, a little consolation for me,” he says.
The boy has the attributes of a good striker: good positioning in the circle, finishing, and the ability to cleanly beat a defender or two. Abdul Rahman, who now stands five feet and 11 inches, is a keen student of the game. “Mostly, I watch videos of the FIH Pro League, the flagship event of the International Hockey Federation, competed by the world’s top nine nations,” he says.
“My aim now is obviously to gain selection for the national team,” he says. And Abdul Rehman is getting closer to achieving this aim. A few days ago, he was called up for the preparatory camp for the Pakistan team for the forthcoming Men’s Asian Champions Trophy in India, his fifth time at national camp.
After his virtuoso performance at the Junior Asia Cup, Abdul Rehman stands a very good chance to make the cut this time.
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 25th, 2023