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Pakistani hockey players: Best not to break a leg

July 25, 2012

Contrary to what many may think, hockey is actually a pretty bruising sport. -File photo

Salman Akbar is a veteran goal-keeper who made his debut for Pakistan in 2001. Termed by Olympian Shahid Ali Khan as one of the most hard-working players in the game, Akbar has won the 2005 Rabo Trophy and the 2010 Asian Games gold medal with Pakistan. He was adjudged the ‘best keeper’ in both events. Here, he reveals the pressures surrounding Pakistani hockey players, who according to him have very uncertain and insecure futures.

To a casual observer watching the game on television, hockey may seem like a fairly harmless sport. On the pitch, it is a completely different story. The fast-paced modern game is akin to pitting 22 gladiators in an extremely tight arena.

In my 11-year professional career, I have come across a lot of players whose prospects of top-level hockey ended in either school or college after sustaining serious injuries to the head and other parts of the body. It is not something the parents of young hopefuls readily subscribe to.

I can recall several incidents in order to explain the extent of these on-field injuries. Craig Parnham of England suffered one of the most gruesome injuries while playing against Pakistan in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia in 2001. During a short corner Sohail Abbas' stick caught Parnham's throat in the follow through, smashing his windpipe. He was rushed to the hospital and after days of intensive treatment, he was able to survive. The incident almost cost him his life, but thankfully, the defender fully recovered and even got his voice back.

While Parnham was lucky, other players like Australia's Lizzie Watkins and junior Indian player Deep Kumar Dogra unfortunately succumbed to the injuries they suffered on the field.

The grind starts very early for a hockey player and even after making through these early stages, it takes a lot of sacrifices, energy and hard work for junior players to break into the national level. If successful, a long career beckons, and with it comes more competition and hard work and obviously a lot more for the body to bear. For most players, the real extent of these injuries only begins to surface once their playing days are over and the fitness levels are not what they used to be.

In the backdrop of all the above, it is unbelievable that players in Pakistan do not have any medical insurance! In other words, if a player is injured while representing the country or even playing domestic tournaments, he is to bear all the expenses of the treatment himself. Self-financing usually delays the time it takes between the injury and the treatment, causing in some cases irreparable damage. The player then has to make several visits to Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) office to get reimbursed for the treatment costs.

I can understand that funding is an issue for which the government can be blamed, but also believe that the PHF has enough money to hand out insurance packages to the players which covers all injuries. The PHF has to understand that the players are its employees. Only those companies make it to the top who take good care of their employees. Whenever a training camp is announced, the PHF always names a doctor and or a pyhsio along with the players. However, an ordinary physio accompanying the national team is not the solution to the problem.

I have seen a lot of up-and-coming players whose careers have been stalled or cut short because of a lack of proper treatment, for which the costs are very high even in Pakistan. Going abroad to get operated upon further delays the process purely because of financial reasons.

One of the best players in the world, Jamie Dwyer of Australia, suffered a serious knee injury at the 2003 Champions Trophy playing against Pakistan. Following the incident, his federation invested in him because they knew his worth. Consequently, Jamie got fit in time for the 2004 Athens Olympics, scoring the golden goal against the Holland to give Australia its first gold medal at the Games.

On the other hand Mudasar Ali Khan suffered a knee injury at 2005 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. After that he never put on the green shirt and I can say that Pakistan have struggled to find a genuine right mid-fielder since.

It is imperative that all players be insured so that they can perform without any fears on the pitch and not worry about running around like beggars afterwards to claim reimbursements.

I have been playing league hockey in Holland for the last four years. When I first arrived here in 2008, I was told there were two requirements that I would have had to fulfill to be eligible to play. First and most obvious was a work permit. And second was mandatory health insurance.

In Holland, not a single individual is without the basic health insurance, not even the resident aliens. The situation in Pakistan is completely different, for a lot of different reasons. However, as far as the professional players are concerned, the onus is on the PHF to fix this so that players feel secure.

The structure of the game in Holland is professionally managed – and I am not just talking about the top league. Even the second division has everything in place from professional medics to video analysts. It ensures for a very strong foundation.

Pakistan has clearly lacked on this front and failed to get on with the times.

The Dutch league almost always has several top international players competing in it. Even the second league ropes in internationals to strengthen their respective teams. The local boys study, work and train side-by-side. Clubs work with the players to accommodate all of this, and they respond by being focused on the field. The boys usually train six times a week and I have never seen them just meandering on the pitch, even after a hard day’s of work. The progress of the Dutch is quite evident.

A season in Holland lasts for six months, with a three-month break for winter. They have one system in place for all age groups. Players, across the board, play with the right spirit and respect the umpires’ calls. In my four years, I have never seen any fights, even though there have been some poor umpiring decisions.

In Pakistan, first of all we don't have a league system. The domestic tournaments are lost in the archives like dinosaurs. The only event left is the national championship which is held every year with a maximum duration of two weeks. Only the players in the national junior and senior camps compete in it, in addition to the department veterans.

But what about all the other players who are not on the fringes of the senior or junior teams?  They go to their respective clubs where I would say the training they get is mediocre at best. Simply put, they are not getting any coaching there. Despite of this, they keeping working hard, hoping to one day don the green jersey because that’s all we that have at our disposal.

I don’t have any doubt that Pakistan is an extremely talented hockey nation despite the countless setbacks that we have experienced. Talent, however, is not enough to compete at the international level and aim to regain our lost glory. This talent should get the best financial support. They should not be worried about the costs of getting injured, life after retirement and all the baggage that comes with the life of a sportsman. Promising players must be given all the respect and confidence, as well as real modern coaching. Such players should be kept on par with other nations through a strong domestic structure.

In the Dutch leagues, a quality Pakistani player is still very much in demand. They believe the skills of our players are unmatched.

We need to face the problems plaguing our national hockey set up and change the way we treat our national game.

Hockey gave me every thing and I firmly believe that we can return to the podium once again, if we act now.