Malaysia is the biggest hub of international hockey. The country has hosted numerous title tournaments, including World Cups (senior as well as junior), Asia Cups (senior and junior) and events such as World Hockey League.
In 1983, Malaysia introduced an international invitational tournament in the shape of Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. Initially a biennial event, it has been held annually since 1998. It is now the oldest surviving as well as the most prestigious invitational international hockey tournament. All the major hockey nations have figured though the Asian countries are the more frequent visitors.
Encouraged by the success of Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, in 2011, Malaysia introduced an international tournament for the juniors on similar lines. Sultan of Johor Cup will see its fifth edition push off in Johor Bahru on October 11. The participating teams are: Australia, England, Argentina, India, Malaysia and Pakistan.
All the editions have been held at the Taman Daya Hockey Stadium or Johor State Hockey Stadium in Johor Bahru.
It was also the main venue of the 9th Men’s Junior Hockey World Cup in 2009. All this means that Malaysia now has another major hockey centre, in Johor Bahru, the capital of Johor, one of the most developed states in the country.
After the single league, there will be play-offs for 1/2 (final), 3 /4 and 5/6 positions.
The more regular participants in this invitational tournament are the Asian sides and Australia and New Zealand, though the latter will be absent this year.
From among the European nations, Germany have appeared only once. Great Britain/England will be there for the third time this year. Argentina will be making their debut, a first for any country from the American continent.
Pakistan’s show has been very disappointing in all the four editions. They have failed to reach the podium even once: 5th in 2011, and 4th in both 2012 and 2013.
The 2014 event saw the Green-shirts finish last among the six sides. Moreover, they conceded the highest number of goals (20) and scored the least (6).
Pakistan were throughout termed the whipping boys of the competition. This year, a new-look junior side will be seen in action at Johor Bahru. Only two members, captain Dilber Hasan and vice-captain Afsar Yaqoob (grandson of Afzal Manna, member of 1964 Olympics’ silver medal winning Pakistan hockey team), have played for the national senior side.
Many will be making their debut for Pakistan at any level. The boys went through extensive eight-week training under the supervision of a coaching panel headed by Tahir Zaman, a highly qualified and internationally recognised trainer. The former national captain, who played a stellar role in Pakistan’s World Cup victory of 1994, is FIH’s Grade 1 High Performance Senior Coach. He is also the FIH Academy Coach Educator -- the only Asian to have that position. An outstanding inside right in his heyday, Tahir has coached the national teams of Azerbaijan (women), Egypt (men) and Barbados (men and women).
The assistant coaches are M Irfan and Zeeshan Ashraf, who captained the gold medal winning Pakistan team at the 2010 Asian Games. Former international Irfan has had coaching stints with the national senior and junior sides.
In addition, he has been in charge of the PIA’s s senior and junior teams for more than a decade, and his sides have won quite a few national titles.
Under Zeeshan’s guidance, the National Bank of Pakistan won the last national junior championships. A good show is expected of this new bunch of juniors. However, it must be remembered that the Sultan of Johor Cup is only an invitational tournament.
The real test lies ahead; also in Malaysia. The Junior Asia Cup starts in Kuantan from November 14. A title tournament, the event will also serve as the qualifier for the next year’s Junior World Cup.
There are four Junior World Cup places allocated to Asia, with one place already assigned to India in their role as the host country.
The three remaining places will be assigned to the three highest ranked teams other than India at the end of the event in Kuantan.
Pakistan Hockey Federation’s new Secretary General Shahbaz Ahmed has rightly remarked, "With the national team failing to make the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, we pin our hopes on these boys. Missing qualification for the Junior World Cup would be a disaster for Pakistan hockey."
The PHF has made an important decision in this regard. The Sultan of Johor Cup will end on October 18 and the Junior Asia Cup gets under way on November 14.
The junior squad will stay in Malaysia for their final phase of training for the Junior Asia Cup. Besides training, the Pakistanis are also expected to play a few friendlies against the Malaysian juniors and Malaysia Hockey League clubs.
The Sultan of Johor Cup pits Pakistan against India, the two-time defending champions; Malaysia, the reigning junior Asian champions; Australia, No 1 team in the FIH rankings; Great Britain, who figure among the world’s top five teams; and Argentina, the winners of all the ten Pan American junior championships.
Hence, a battle-hardened and well-acclimatised Pakistan side will be ready for the challenge of the Junior Asia Cup.