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 reviews Pakistan's performance at the 2012 Champions Trophy where the Greenshirts clinched the bronze medal.
It was great to see the men in green with a medal in the Champions Trophy after eight years. After finishing seventh at the 2012 London Olympics just three months ago, getting a spot on the podium, in a tournament where all top teams competed, is definitely something that should be appreciated. However, to say that the bronze medal is like gold just because Pakistan had to beat India to win it, is foolish.
After finishing on podium, Pakistan automatically qualified for the next edition of the trophy which is a real victory as the Greenshirts had to depend on a wild-card entry to play in this year’s competition and had to wait for five years before taking part in 2011.
Not only did Pakistan win a medal, Shakeel Abbasi was adjudged the best player of the tournament. That is a great achievement for any individual as it is not an easy feat to be the best in a tournament where players like Moritz Fuerste (Germany), Jamie Dwyer (Australia), Eddie Ockenden (Australia), Barry Middleton (England), Simon Child (New Zealand) and Sardar Singh (India) are in action. Abbasi proved all his critics wrong and hopefully he will continue helping the team with his performances in the future as well.
Pakistan got off to a bad start in the bronze medal match and India scored through a penalty corner after just seven minutes. The Greenshirts tried to level the scores and were successful on the counter attack in the 21st minute when Mohammad Rizwan (sr.) scored from the top of the circle to ensure both teams went into half-time with the scores level.
Pakistan were much better after the break and even though Abbasi did not score, his performance was the clear difference between the two sides. Pakistan’s defence was once again very disciplined and pushed India to use their attacking abilities. Rashid Mehmood and Mohammad Ateeq had a good game and Pakistan could have earned a lead and even doubled it had it not been for some poor finishing.
However, Shafqat Rasool took Pakistan ahead in the 40th minute with a great assist from Abbasi and Ateeq soon made it 3-1 through a penalty corner with just four minutes to go. Pakistan brought on Imran Shah in place of Imran Butt at that point and Shah repeated his show at the London Olympics, resulting in the final score of 3-2.
Pakistan’s squad was the most experienced in this edition of the Champions Trophy, with only three changes from the squad which went to London. All the other teams had a lot of new faces in their squads, including the Olympic champions Germany who just recalled three players from the Games squad.
After London 2012, the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) dissolved the selection committee and gave its powers to the coaching staff, making Tahir Zaman the coaching consultant of Pakistan hockey.
If there had been a lot of changes in the team and Pakistan had won the medal, then it would have been reasonable to say that the new step by the PHF worked. There is no doubt that the coaching staff must make changes in the future for which they need time.
The decision of the PHF to give all the powers to the coaching staff will take time, if at all, to bear fruit, and the real test will be when Pakistan is up against experienced teams.
For the first time in the history of the tournament, the teams were divided in two groups and the quarterfinals and the semifinals were also brought in for the first time. All the teams were in the quarterfinals regardless of where they finished in their respective groups. Pakistan finished third in group B after winning only one match during the group stages, against Belgium, then beating an inexperienced Germany which was the only team ranked above them. In the semifinal, Pakistan were thrashed by the Dutch 5-2 after which they managed to beat India to win the bronze medal.
The format of the tournament definitely helped Pakistan reach the podium but on the other hand, the format gave every participant equal opportunity and Pakistan managed to get the maximum advantage out of it.
Goalkeeper Imran Butt replaced Imran Shah who had performed poorly in the hockey International Super Series just before the Champions Trophy. Butt was not tested much as Pakistan’s defence was doing an impressive job throughout the tournament except during the semifinal where Butt, along with the defence, failed. He made some simple saves and winning a bronze medal in his very first appearance at a mega event must boost his confidence which he should build upon and work hard to improve further. He has proved that he is better than Shah and should be given more chances to gain experience.
This is also the right time to bring Mazhar Abbas from the junior team to partner Butt as preparation for the 2014 World Cup.
Pakistan should not let the bronze medal in the Champions Trophy get to their heads but instead keep in mind that they let slip a golden opportunity to reach the finals and work harder. Hopefully, the PHF will not make the same mistakes that were made in the 80s and 90s where no planning was done for the future which has resulted in the current number nine ranking for Pakistan.
PHF must simply work towards keeping the consistency of the team performance and in between try some new players. This medal has increased the expectations of the nation and therefore, the responsibilities of the players, coaching staff, coaching consultant and the office and it is their duty to meet the expectations.