Good show but still a long way to go

December 21, 2014

Pakistan’s strategy in the Champions Trophy was apparently to defend in numbers and then go for swift counter attacks. Shahnaz Sheikh gave his game plan quite a frightening title of 9/11

Good show but still a long way to go

After defeats in all three pool games of the Champions Trophy at the Indian city of Bhubaneswar, Pakistan hockey team was apparently destined for yet another poor finish. Though Pakistan had been more or less outplayed in all the matches, their show against England was the most pathetic. The 8-2 defeat was the worst against England/Great Britain in history.

The strange format saw all the eight participating teams play the quarter-finals. With this form and the FIH ranking of 11th, the lowest in the event, no one would have put money on Pakistan against the 2nd-ranked Holland, who had topped the other pool. It went that way during the first quarter. Pakistan had conceded a soft goal and were unable to penetrate into the opponents’ circle in the first 15 minutes.

Their comeback in the 34th Champions Trophy began in the second quarter. The three time former champions not only equalised as early as in the 16th minute but also went ahead via a penalty corner before the hooter sounded for the half time.

Though the Dutch equalised soon after the resumption courtesy a long pass, the Pakistanis appeared to have settled down well in defence as well as attack. They showed glimpses of skills which made them the game’s emperor in the past. Two excellent penalty corner conversions enabled Pakistan win the match 4-2.

No rivalry in international hockey can match an Indo/Pak encounter. Moreover, being the semi-final of a major tournament, the tie created fervor across both the countries.

Reportedly, the match tickets were sold for 10 times higher than the original price. It indeed turned out a thriller with frequent twists and turns.

At 3-3, the game appeared to be moving towards the penalty shoot-out like their last meeting, the final of the Asian Games.

But only 90 seconds before the final hooter, Arsalan Qadir -- who had scored his team’s first goal -- received a wonderful pass from Ali Shan. The DG Khan boy drew the nearest defenders to his right and in the same action took the ball far to his left before diving to put it past the goalkeeper with a reverse flick. The stadium was stunned and the Green-shirts were in the Champions Trophy final for the first time since 1998.

The great victory soon turned sour when a couple of Pakistani players made indecent gestures towards the crowd. Hockey India protested to the FIH officials. Initially, Pakistan chief coach Shahnaz Sheikh’s written apology had been accepted by the FIH. But Hockey India persisted with pleas for sterner action. In fact, its chief Narinder Batra threatened, "We have decided not to host any FIH tournaments in India including the 2018 Men’s World Cup, if they don’t take any strong action against Pakistan."

As in cricket, India enjoys great clout in hockey these days. FIH succumbed to its pressure and banned two Pakistani players Tauseef and Amjad Ali for one match -- which meant they could not play the final against Germany.

The young Pakistani team played under pressure. The Germans had all the support of the Indian crowd in the final. Pakistan played well in patches but couldn’t repeat their performance of the previous two matches, losing to the reigning Olympic champions 0-2.

However, Pakistan’s display in the second and the all-important half of the tournament was very heartening -- especially the quarter-final and the semi-final victories. It must be recalled they were playing any European nation for the first time in more than a year. Pakistan had failed to qualify for the World Cup and couldn’t appear in the Commonwealth Games due to the tussle of two parallel bodies of the POA. That was probably one of the reasons for the lacklustre performance during the three pool games.

They were also handicapped by the absence of three star players Shakeel Abbasi (player of tournament at the last Champions Trophy), Fareed and Haseem Khan, all busy playing in the Malaysian Hockey League.

The management deserves kudos. The team played with a well-thought out plan during the knockout phase.

Pakistan’s strategy was apparently to defend in numbers and then go for swift counter attacks. Shahnaz gave his game plan quite a frightening title of 9/11. It envisaged nine players taking part during an attack with just two manning the defence, and all the 11 players in the own half while facing the opponents’ attack. The bench had also done some homework on set pieces. Pakistan converted all their three penalty corners in the quarter-final, and each with a different drill.

Against India too Pakistan scored a vital goal, again via a deceptive penalty corner manoeuvre.

At the same time, it is pertinent to mention that the Champions Trophy being a non-title event is often utilised by teams to test emerging players.

Chief selector Islahuddin rightly pointed out, "It is good progress but we shouldn’t forget that the other teams did a lot of experiments by including their young players. Our target is the 2016 Rio Olympics and we have a tough qualification round."

The nation owes gratitude to private entrepreneurs Nadeem Omar (Omar Associates) and Malik Riaz (Bahria Town) whose financial help at the eleventh hour helped PHF pay the players their long overdue allowances. Otherwise, the players might have go on a strike.

Malik Riaz also announced Rs2.5 million for the team after the victory over India. The PHF must employ a professional marketing team to attract long-term sponsorship. Pakistan’s encouraging display should serve as a morale booster for the players and the officials alike but there is a long way to go.

Good show but still a long way to go