An emerging star

May 19, 2024

Sufyan Khan has shot to stardom with his contributions to the team’s much improved results at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament

An emerging star

Pakistan’s second position in the Sultan Azlan Shah Hockey Cup has been hailed by the nation. After a long time, some good hockey news. Many players shone at the Azlan Shah stadium in the Malaysian city of Ipoh.

The Greenshirts made their intentions clear from the opening match against the hosts, twice coming from behind to eventually win 5-4. The day’s hero was the lanky defender Sufyan Khan who had a hat-trick off penalty corners and was also named the Man of Match.

Throughout the tournament, the 20-year-old lad remained a tower of strength in Pakistan’s defence with his clean tackling and anticipation. His long aerial balls initiated some good attacks. With four goals, he was the tournament’s joint second top scorer.

Pakistan remained unbeaten in all the matches but unfortunately lost the final in the shootout. There was some compensation for the team and fans when Sufyan was declared the ‘Player of Tournament’.

The six-foot tall boy comes from Bannu. This city in KP has been a hockey centre since British times. Several international players emerged from here with some gaining immortal status in the annals of Pakistan’s sports history. Brigadier Abdul Hameed, popularly known as Hameedi, captained Pakistan to their first-ever Olympic gold (in any sport) in 1960. Earlier, under his leadership, the country had won their first-ever Olympic medal, a silver, in 1956. Hameedi’s younger brother Abdul Rasheed Junior was a member of Pakistan’s grand slam-winning teams: the 1968 Olympics, 1971 World Cup & 1970 Asian Games. Cracker of a centre forward, Rasheed Jr’s tally of 96 international goals was Pakistan’s record at the time.

Sufyan tells about his journey.

“I saw hockey around me right from childhood and regularly played the game in my school where I also excelled in athletics, 400 & 800 metres. Soon, I joined Bannu’s most prominent team, the Bacha Khan Club where my mentor was Pakistan’s former defender Ihsanullah (World Cup 2006). In 2019, I was selected in the Pakistan Boards team for a tour of Uzbekistan. Ihsanulllah persuaded me to join the Dar Hockey Academy in Lahore. It took him some effort to convince my parents to send their 16-year-old kid to Lahore, more than 500 km from Bannu.”

Sufyan joined Dar HA in 2020. “I come from a humble background. Dar HA caters for everything. The outstation boys are lodged in a hostel. The academy provides excellent playing gear and kit. Coaching on modern lines is imparted at the National Hockey Stadium. The academy team regularly plays matches against other sides. My game improved tremendously: defensive skills as well as the drag flicks.”

The improvement was soon acknowledged: 2022 was his breakthrough year.

“In February, the Pakistan Navy recruited me to play for them. Next, I attended the Pakistan national team’s camp for the Commonwealth Games. And then came the first selection for the Pakistan team.”

Incidentally, Sufyan’s maiden international appearance was in the previous edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in November 2022.

“I was a bit nervous initially but it didn’t take me long to adjust to the pressure of an international match. I scored two penalty corner goals in both the last league matches. Pakistan won the bronze medal; finishing as the team`s top scorer was the icing on the cake.”

Since then he has been a permanent feature of Pakistan’s national and junior teams. The major events he has appeared in include the Asian Games, Junior World Cup, Olympic qualifiers, and FIH Nations Cup, scoring consistently off PCs. In 2023, he joined Mari Petroleum as they offered a better package.

Coming to what is still the talk of the town, the 2024 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup.

“Despite the tribulations before departure, the team gelled beautifully and played with spirit throughout. Unfortunately, we went down in the shootout in the final. Still, it was a result very few anticipated.”

‘Player of the Tournament’

“I wasn’t expecting this at all. It was a surreal feeling when my name was announced — but only a scant consolation after losing the final.”

He is overjoyed by the welcome and rewards.

“The way people, media and the government have responded to our second position is beyond expectation. There have been receptions and monetary rewards. The squad felt very proud when hosted by the PM in Islamabad and the CM Punjab in Lahore. They announced prizes of rupees one million and 1.2 million respectively for each player. On my way to Bannu from Islamabad, my coaster was stopped short of Bannu by people holding garlands and beating drums. Onwards, I was brought to Bannu’s Qazi Mohib hockey stadium in a procession. Later the district administration honoured me with a shield and cash prize.”

A lot of hard work has been behind the youngster’s success.

“I do regular practice on the ground and exercise in the gymnasium. In addition, I have a specially manufactured metal ball weighing two and a half kilograms and a hockey stick much heavier than the normal ones. I use them to improve my drag-flick skills. Watching videos of the world’s top drag flickers is also very useful. My favourite is Harmanpreet Singh, the Indian team captain.”

The special talent has drawn interest from abroad but national cause is his priority.

“Two English clubs approached me to play in their league. They offered good money. But right now, I want to remain fully committed to the national team. After this appreciation and rewards, I feel the onus is on us, the players, to work even harder and put all the energy into helping Pakistan regain its lost place in hockey.”

An emerging star