The eighth Junior Asia Cup has started at the Wisma Belia Hockey Stadium in the Malaysian city of Kuantan.
The quadrennial tournament is not only a title event but has also been serving as a qualifier for the Junior World Cup for last many editions.
The Asian continent has been allotted four spots in the next year’s Junior World Cup to be held in New Delhi.
One of the slots has already gone to India for being the hosts; three others are to be determined.
For Pakistan, the event is of utmost importance. The national team has failed to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. Pakistan couldn’t make it to the 2014 World Cup either. This means there is nothing left for the senior lot.
Pakistan hockey now looks towards the juniors for its survival. Shahbaz Ahmed, the PHF secretary, has rightly said, "Failure to qualify for the junior World Cup would be no less than a catastrophe for the game in this country."
Only last month, Pakistan junior side played in a high-profile tournament also in Malaysia. In the six-nation Sultan of Johor Cup, the Green-shirts ended last, failing to win a single match.
The team’s head coach Tahir Zaman in a talk admitted that it was a disappointing show. "Yes, Pakistan’s performance was very poor. But it must be remembered that it was a newly-raised side as there had been no activity at the junior level for more than one year. On the other hand, junior strings of countries like India and Malaysia had been actively playing for around two years and had had good international experience."
Would it be different at the Asia Cup?
"We have tried to rectify the shortcomings of the boys in the camp. The main areas we worked on are penalty corner conversion and defence, finishing in circle, deep defence and avoiding mistakes in the circle.
"As it is an inexperienced bunch, so to provide match experience, a four-match series with the Pakistan seniors was arranged. The senior side consisted of the best available national players other than those active in the foreign leagues."
The head coach appeared satisfied. "The boys showed gradual improvement in every game. More cohesion and understanding was witnessed," he said.
"We have two targets in Kuantan. The first is to qualify for the Junior World Cup. Anything less is a major disaster for us. We have realistic hopes of a podium finish. And now, with the match experience and having worked on our weaknesses, Pakistan can even surprise India and Malaysia. This is no day dreaming. Despite our overall pathetic campaign at the Sultan of Johor Cup, we had drawn against Great Britain, the eventual champions."
The junior squad has also been strengthened by the inclusion of Ammad Shakeel Butt, a member of the senior team, who has also been named the captain of the team. He missed the recent Sultan of Johor Cup.
Pakistan were captained by Mohamed Dilber, also a member of the senior side. He is now the vice-captain.
Tahir said: "Ammad Shakeel was signed by a Malaysian Hockey League club. The PHF issued him the NOC as we wanted to try some new players at Sultan of Johor Cup, an invitational tournament. So he was allowed to fulfil his contractual obligations with the club."
Incidentally, Ammad Shakeel’s club Terengganu won the double this season, the Malaysian Hockey League as well as the overall Cup.
The eight competing teams at this year’s Junior Asia Cup have been placed in two pools:
Pool A: India, Malaysia, Japan, China.
Pool B: Pakistan, South Korea, Oman, Bangladesh.
Pakistan seemingly have the easier of the two pools and should achieve their first aim -- a semi-final place.
Pakistan have been the most successful nation with three titles -- the first three editions. Since then they have finished runners up twice and third once.
It was only in 2000 when Pakistan couldn’t reach the victory stand with 5th position.
Malaysia, the defending champions, are the Junior Asia Cup hosts for the fourth time.
Kuantan has become the third Malaysian city to hold the Junior Asia Cup after Kuala Lumpur (twice) and Melaka.
Kuantan is the state capital of Pahang, the third largest state of the country. Scenic beaches, waterfalls and theme parks make it a popular tourist attraction.