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October 15, 2017

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The greatest hockey rivalry

Today, Pakistan play India in their last pool match of the Asia Cup at Dhaka. The Indo-Pak rivalry in hockey is unmatched. Pakistan were carved out of India in 1947. India or British India’s hockey team had participated in three Olympics, 1928, 1932 and 1936, winning the gold each time. Olympics couldn’t be held in 1940 and 1944 because of the Second World War.

Cometh 1948 Olympics, an India-Pakistan final was anticipated, not only by the peoples of the two countries but by the entire hockey world. There were good reasons for that. Muslim players from the area becoming Pakistan as well as those from India had contributed a lot to the three victories. In fact, the captain and the vice-captain of British India at 1932 Olympics, Lal Shah Bukhari and Jaffar Shah, were Muslims from areas now constituting Pakistan. If Pakistan benefited from Muslim players migrating to the country from India, it was also the other way around since many distinguished hockey players, especially Sikhs, moved from Lahore to East Punjab.

Surprisingly, Pakistan perished in the semi-final of the 1948 as well as the 1952 Olympics, finishing fourth on each occasion with India winning the gold both the times. After some soul searching, restructuring of the domestic structure was carried out in Pakistan.

At the 1956 Olympics, the wait was over. Pakistan eventually made it to the final to face India. The encounter lived up to the billing. After an epic battle, India won the final by a solitary goal.

The greatest rivalry in the sport of hockey had been born. 1956 was India’s sixth successive gold at the Olympics. But Pakistan appeared well equipped to dent this supremacy. Hockey was included in the Asian Games for the first time in 1958. The event was played on a single league format. The Indo-Pak match ended in a 0-0 draw. Pakistan won the gold because of the better goal difference.

In 1960, at Rome, India’s 32-year-old hegemony came to an end. Naseer Bunda’s goal in the final proved decisive and Pakistan won their first ever Olympic gold. Pakistan also defeated India in the final of the 1962 Asian Games. But the bigger of the two neighbours came back strongly. India regained the Olympic title in 1964 and the Asiad gold in 1966, defeating Pakistan 1-0 each time.

The next Olympics ‘68 again saw the gold returning to Pakistan. But they didn’t encounter India in the final. India failed to reach the final for the first time as Australia eliminated them in the semis.

Pakistan also regained the Asiad gold in 1970 when Rasheed Jr netted during the sudden death in the final against India.

With other nations gaining strength, there was not to be another Olympic final between the subcontinent’s great powers after 1964. Nevertheless, they played a memorable semi-final in 1972 which Pakistan won 2-0.

The World Cup was instituted in 1971 and the first three editions witnessed them clashing in the knockout stage. In the first World Cup, the eventual champions Pakistan came from behind to win 2-1 in the semi-final. The next edition in 1973 saw India reversing the result, also in the semi-final. Finally, they met in the World Cup final for the first and the last time in 1975. India lifted the World Cup for the first and the last time, downing Pakistan 2-1.

And that was that. Since 1975, they have never came across in the final or the semi-final of either Olympics or the World Cup.

Nevertheless, they have figured in some exciting duels in the decisive stages of Asian Games and the Asia Cup (started in 1982).

One can comprehend their mutual rivalry in the light of political turbulence between the two countries since 1947. But what makes Indo-Pak contests so special for the hockey world at large? It is the style of the play and the individual skills that captivate the fans all over the globe.

The current German national captain Martin Haner once said, “One of the factors that enrich the Bundesliga (German League) is the presence of 1-2 Indian players in every team.”

This sounds surprising as over the last three decades, the Indian national side hasn’t had a notable success in the international arena. Moreover, almost all the Indian players in the Bundesliga are not in contention for the national team.

“The oriental players are natural ball players and possess special artistic skills, and one learns a lot by playing with or against them,” Haner believes.

Holland’s Rob Lathouwers is one of the most respected umpires in history; he blew whistle at three World Cups and two Olympics (1978-1994). When asked about the most difficult matches he umpired, he said, “India/Pakistan games. There were 22 magicians on the field. I had to concentrate more so as not to be distracted by the players’ artistry.”

And what is this artistry that makes sub-continental hockey so bewitching. It is the dribbling skills via dexterous stick work and body feints plus deceptive short passes.

Some maintain that the change in the rules, especially the abolition of offside has impacted the Asian style. The emphasis is now on long passes, and hit & run. But the connoisseurs believe that the forward’s ability to eliminate the defender still makes the vital difference.

The Asian style is very much alive and its charm lures everyone. This is borne out by the interest of the organisers as well as the broadcasters. They all want to have Pakistan-India matches at peak times despite them being out of the reckoning for such a long period.

In the Hockey World League semi-finals in London this summer, Pakistan-India tie was specially scheduled on Sunday.

The broadcasters now demand the two to be placed in the same pool so as to ensure at least one match between the two great rivals - as in Dhaka today.

Most regard India as the favourites for today’s match. The last two encounters at the Hockey World League semi-final in London saw India demolishing Pakistan 7-1 and 6-1.

Pakistan had surprisingly left out a number of senior players for the London event. M Irfan, the former captain, is now back and has also been entrusted again with the captain’s arm band. Likewise, veterans Rizwan Sr (vice-captain) and Rashid Mahmood have been recalled. The duo has been on the rolls of Oranje-Rood, a top-ranked Dutch club, for the last many years and they figured in club’s remarkable run to the final of the European Hockey League (equivalent to soccer’s Champions League) in 2016-17.

With these players, Pakistan had run India close in their two meetings prior to London. The Green-shirts lost the two ties at the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy against India by the narrowest margin (2-3 in the pool game and also in the final).

Fingers crossed!

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