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The annus horribilis of Pakistan hockey

June 05, 2012

Several members of the team that won the hockey gold at the 2010 Asian Games in China, have been discarded by the PHF for various reasons. It was the Asian Games win that brought Pakistan its Olympic qualification. – File photo by AFP
Several members of the team that won the hockey gold at the 2010 Asian Games in China, have been discarded by the PHF for various reasons. It was the Asian Games win that brought Pakistan its Olympic qualification. – File photo by AFP

At the recently-concluded Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, Pakistan’s hockey team finished last, after losing five of their six matches. How they won the first match against Argentina, is the real question, not the five losses.

It seems as if it is not about winning anymore. It’s all about losing gracefully and coming up with excuses. Whether or not they are ready to participate in the upcoming London Olympics, the Pakistan hockey team and its management have surely accumulated a nice list of excuses for face-saving, should the nation question them or the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) when they fail at the Games , which are less than two months away now.  The Sultan Azlan Shah Cup seems like a horrible trailer of things to come.

The players are confused and unsure about their roles, thanks to the constant experimentation by the selectors. While other Olympic participants have kick-started their preparations and are looking to peak at London, Pakistan is still struggling with putting together a respectable team, which is not likely to happen until the few miserable ‘rebels,’ who dared to make a quick buck by opting to play in the unsanctioned World Series of Hockey (WSH) in India are allowed back into the squad. Here, too, the PHF can always make them look like villains who preferred money over playing for Pakistan.

Another possible excuse could be the absence of a blue turf in Pakistan.  The installation of the Olympic Park-style turf has been an on-going controversy in itself. The team manager was quick to lay blame on the surface after the team’s first loss in Malaysia. One wonders how other teams coped with the “bouncy and slippery” turf, which had “made things difficult” for his team.

While the manager has, at times, been brave enough to face the media, the coach has rarely had anything to say about the dismal performances. By sidelining Michel van den Heuvel and bringing in former captain Olympian Akhtar Rasool seemed to be an indication of things to come. While the man certainly means well and has Pakistan hockey’s best interests at heart, but there remains an unshakable image of him stumbling off the field after an exhibition match. Almost three-and-a-half years ago, when the Pakistan junior hockey team’s clash against their Indian counterparts was put off by the Indian government, the PHF hastily arranged for an exhibition match between the juniors and the former Olympians at the Hockey Club of Pakistan (HCP).

All of the game’s greats except Akhtar Rasool donned the hurriedly-stitched kits to take on junior team. Akhtar just couldn’t fit into a pair of shorts and shirt before he came in for a couple of minutes to pass the ball to his teammates before getting breathless to no longer be able to continue. Using his hockey stick as a walking stick, he left the field as quickly as he had entered it. So if this is the fitness level of the chief coach, one can imagine how he will be able to motivate and push the boys to lift their fitness standards.

Hence, the team that reached the final of the tournament in 2011 was seen picking up the wooden spoon in Ipoh this time around as New Zealand lifted the cup with Argentina as the runners up and India finishing third. Pakistan, after beating Argentina 4-2 in the initial game, just crashed. They were beaten by New Zealand (3-1), South Korea (4-0), Malaysia (3-2), India (2-1) and Great Britain (2-1). Sadly it all happened under the star player Sohail Abbas’s captaincy.

Meanwhile, the fate of the eight players – Shakeel Abbasi, Rehan Butt, Waseem Ahmed, Tariq Aziz, Imran Warsi, Adnan Maqsood, Mudassar Ali Khan and Zeeshan Ashraf – who featured in the controversial WSH hung in the balance. After being served with show-cause notices to appear before a PHF-formed disciplinary committee, former captains Shakeel Abbasi and Rehan Butt were hoping for a quick decision in their favour, which would allow them to play in Malaysia. The committee, however, took its own sweet time as the PHF watched the tournament to see if the team could do without these senior players.

The committee announced the verdict on May 29, after Pakistan lost to New Zealand (May 27) and South Korea (May 28) as by that time, it was evident that the team cannot do without the senior players, especially forwards Shakeel Abbasi and Rehan Butt.

When it is obvious that the national team needs these ‘rebels,’ the heavy fines imposed on them seem ridiculous. Shakeel Abbasi and Rehan Butt have been fined one million rupees each as they were part of the camp when they decided to play in the WSH. As for the others who participated in the league, they are to pay Rs2,50,000 each in order to be able to don the Pakistan colour at the Olympics. Failure to do so will see them banned for one year from both domestic and international events.

Former captain Zeeshan Ashraf, who had led Pakistan to victory at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, in 2010, is also needed in the side whether the PHF likes it or not. Ashraf took a break after winning gold in China, when he opted out of the Azlan Shah Cup last year, while expressing his wish to feature in bigger events from then onwards. He was, however, discarded completely from all the following events as well despite the then Dutch coach thinking otherwise. Pakistan is only featuring in the Olympics on the basis of its Asian Games triumph and Ashraf, along with the other players shunned, led the team to victory. Meanwhile, the Dutch coach, who was also shown the door, is still under contract with the PHF until after the Olympics.

It is best that the PHF swallow their pride and reconsider the events of the last year or so, before taking the next step. Otherwise, instead of claiming to have brought back Pakistan hockey’s lost pride, they will only be able to offer a bunch of excuses, and maybe some more empty promises to the country’s sports fans.

The author is a member of staff at Dawn.