Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Pakistan Hockey lacks ambition

There was a time when Pakistan, along with India, dominated the game of men's hockey. The close dribbling skills of these two nations and their ability to conjure a goal from nowhere, put them in a class of their own. Sadly that is no longer the case and the failure of both nations at the London Olympics 2012 will not help them regain their positions at the top of the hockey world.

I've already spoken about India in a separate post so let's concentrate on Pakistan.

The last 10 years have been hard for all sports in Pakistan. The war in Afghanistan, attacks on visiting national sports teams and a general lack of facilities has meant that Pakistan has been sliding down the world rankings in almost every sport you can name.

Hockey and cricket have had a particularly hard time of it. While Pakistan's cricketers have endured match fixing and fraud claims, some proven in court, many more unproven, hockey has kept its name clean. This is important for Pakistan hockey players as there are less chances for them to earn a living playing abroad than their cricketing counterparts.

While Pakistan's cricketers have been able to play international test cricket despite their problems, the hockey players have faced a dearth of quality international matches. Without those matches, it is hard to go to big competitions and win medals.

In the big hockey competitions, Pakistan has struggled. The last Summer Olympics medal was bronze in 1992 in Barcelona. Their last Champions Trophy medal was also a Bronze won in Lahore in 2004 at what was the last major hockey tournament they hosted. In the Hockey World Cup, Pakistan's last success was gold in the 1994, Sydney competition.

Although Pakistan has appeared in these major competitions on more recent occassions, they have failed to make any real impact on the other countries.

In regional competitions, Pakistan has had more recent success with Gold in the 2010 Asian Games in China, Silver in the 2009 Hockey Asia Cup held in Malaysia, silver in the 2011 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup also held in Malaysia and silver in the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Australia.

It was Pakistan's performances in the Asian Games in 2010 and the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in 2011 that perhaps fooled some of us into believing that Pakistan could offer a significant challenge at this Olympic Games.

I had the opportunity to watch Pakistan train at Cannock Hockey Club prior to the Olympic competition starting. They worked very hard with a lot of time spent on game play and tactical moves such as offensive and defensive penalty corners. In fact, this was the first time I'd seen any international side using a Bola machine to fire balls at the goalkeepers and I was impressed at the speed and agility of the goalkeepers, especially Imran Shah.

Pakistan also did something I've not seen from other sides, work the two post defenders in simulated penalty corner mode. This was done by using the Bola machine to fire balls at them so they could practice taking high balls with their sticks. It made me wonder why other teams do not do this.

But performance in practice sessions and performance in game situations are rarely comparable. While sometimes a training ground move works perfectly, what is more important, is the ability of the players to improvise and how they respond under pressure. It is in this area that Pakistan have been found desperately wanting.

An opening game against Spain resulted in a 1-1 draw and a good opportunity for the team to get to the speed of the pitch and competition. In beating Argentina 2-0 in the next match, Pakistan were beginning to look the real deal and a serious threat to Great Britain and Australia.

Against Great Britain, however, Pakistan were exposed by fast breaks and contined pressure in the 23m area. Great Britain pressured Pakistan and ran out comfortable winners 4-1. At this point, Pakistan could have been forgiven for settling for third in the group but they didn't. They bounced back with an unconvincing 5-4 win over South Africa which kept them in contention for a semi-final berth after Great Britain fought to a 3-3 draw with Australia.

It all came down to the last match. Only a win was going to be good enough for Pakistan and while it was never going to be easy, they were up against an Australian side that had lost a 3-0 lead against Great Britain. How much did Pakistan want it?

The answer was not much. They shipped two early goals but were making some forays into the Australian end of the pitch. Shots were hard to get off but they did test the Australian GK, but to no avail. By the end of the first half, Australia were 4-0 ahead and in the second half, as the lead was extended to 5-0, Pakistan stopped competing. By the end of the match, it was a very sorry looking Pakistan who found themselves on the end of a 7-0 rout by a very dominant Australia.

Could Pakistan have won? Yes. They have demonstrated that they are perfectly capable of scoring and defending. Unfortunately for them, Australia was looking to bounce back from the draw against Great Britain and to send a message to their semi-final opponents, Germany.

Pakistan's biggest mistake was in sitting back and inviting Australia to come and attack. This was what happened against Great Britain and they lost that game. As the game wore on, defenders stopped communicating and Australian players all too often found themselves unmarked with a shot on goal.

Despite a quick flurry at the start of the second half, Pakistan looked like a side that had given up. Heads were down, basic skills and passing were poor, tackles were missed with monotonous regularity and they'd even stopped playing for pride. Given the option of a white flag, it looked as if Pakistan would use it.

This is not the Pakistan I watched when I first started playing hockey and somewhere, there is a need for the team management to install some belief and pride in these players. Without it, they will continue to slide down the rankings and the wait for a major medal will continue until it becomes impossible to attract new talent into the team.

Attracting that talent is a major problem, particularly at home in Pakistan. What the Pakistan Hockey Federation should be doing is looking at communities outside of Pakistan where youngsters are playing hockey in local clubs and build support for them. Yes, it will take a lot of work and money. It will also take a lot of committment from the national team management but without it, the pool of potential players and talent will dwindle to nothing.

There is another reason why Pakistan needs to take this route and get ex pats to commit to the national team. Many in these communities see a better chance of success in playing for their adopted countries. This should come as no surprise. When you look at a country where you can win a medal and whose playing philosophies you understand compared to a country on the slide and with no realistic chance of delivering trophies, you would be hard pressed to reject the higher chance of success.

There are two years until the Commonwealth games in Glasgow, Scotland. If Pakistan want to prove they are on the way back and have the ambition and drive to win major trophies, they need to get their players into Europe, playing for European clubs at the highest possible level. The ball is firmly in the hands of those at the top of Pakistan hockey.

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