Once a heavyweight in the sport — eight Olympic medals and five World Cup titles — Pakistan’s fall from grace has been glaring and of catastrophic proportions.
It was absent from the Olympics in 2016 and 2020, and the World Cup in 2023.
There’s still light at the end of the tunnel. The side can bring this unceremonious streak to a halt by clinching gold at the upcoming Asian Games in Hangzhou. The winner of the event seals a berth for the Paris Olympics. In Chennai, with the Asian Champions Trophy, Pakistan will set off on this quest.
With all six teams also competing at the Asian Games, the tournament is the perfect precursor to the showpiece event in China.
Pakistan will find out if it can survive the deep waters against higher-ranked India, Korea, and Malaysia.
But the team’s run-up to the six-team tournament has been marred by lacklustre performances and administrative disorder. Pooled against Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and Scotland at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, the Green Shirts secured just one win, and had to contend with a seventh-place finish.
Asian Champions Trophy record:
The side plunged further when it finished seventh in the eight-team FIH Nations Cup in South Africa in December 2022, winning just one out of its five games. Days later, the team’s head coach, Siegfried Aikman, resigned over salary arrears. Hope lingers on, though, that the worst might be behind Pakistan hockey. The turnaround, still fresh, has been set in motion by the junior team that won silver at the Asia Cup in June.
As many as nine players from this junior side find a place in the 18-member team for the Asian Champions Trophy, with Adbul Hannan Shahid being the player to watch out for. Other fresh faces have been inducted into the team, leaving only eight names from the Commonwealth Games contingent.
Muhammed Umer Bhutta, the only player with more than 150 international caps, will herald this young crop of players, and hope to tick the right boxes before they take off for China.
On paper, Pakistan is far from being a contender. Titles, however, are seldom won on paper. Pakistan may have slipped to the second rung in global tournaments, but it has stamped its authority at the Asian level. It has won the Asian Champions Trophy thrice, been runner-up twice, and made it to the top four in every edition.
The reputation and pride at stake will come in handy in drawing out the last ounce of effort from the youngsters. Despite being a team in the nascent stages of a transition, take this fallen giant as a pushover at your peril.