Asia Cup Hockey: Similar Pitch, Different Targets as Old Foes India-Pak Clash
India are playing Pakistan in the 2022 Asia Cup opener on Monday.
For close to seven decades now, India-Pakistan hockey games have been played against an almost similar backdrop. Powerhouses of Asian hockey ranked almost next to each other, two equally-balanced sides brimming with passion and skills, and plenty of mini duels that pitted many record-holders against each other.
It has been a visual treat that made for one of the most sumptuous clashes in world hockey, showcasing free-flowing hockey at its best.
Come Monday, May 23, the two teams will face-off yet again, this time at the Asia Cup in Jakarta, but the imagery has changed drastically. Tokyo Olympic medallists India are currently World No. 3 — their best ranking ever; are table toppers of the Pro League, and have their eyes firmly set on the 2024 Paris Games.
As hosts for the 2023 World Cup, India are guaranteed of a place in the tournament and have fielded a development side for the Asia Cup, a qualifying event for the World Cup.
In contrast, Pakistan have slowly been picking up the pieces following a drastic low that saw them miss out on two Olympics, a World Cup and even the Pro League owing to a cash crunch. The former Olympic and World Cup winners are in rebuilding mode under former Japan coach Siegfried Aikman, an inspirational man-manager.
That Aikman, a Dutchman of Indian-origin, observed fast along with his wards during Ramadan, showcases his style of coaching that focuses on nurturing both on-field and off-field relationships.
Aikman, in fact, was forthright in his assessment ahead of the much-awaited match. He acknowledged that his “players lack tactical nous” but asserted that “they were in for a fight”.
“India is our best benchmark,” Aikman said, underlining how things have changed drastically for these two nations in the last decade. “The basic skills of our players are good but tactically and technically, there are many problems. Modern hockey is not taught (in Pakistan) at the grassroots levels, it is still old-fashioned.
“Changing from traditional to modern hockey is a challenge and that is what I am working upon. I want to develop a structure from grassroots level to all the way up, so that may be in 10 years, there would not only be a Pakistan team that competes with the best but also have a follow-up.”
“Just as India did it over a period of 12 years, I think Pakistan too can build from here on. The players want to win and are very competitive,” said the coach, who guided Japan to the 2018 Asian Games gold medal at the same venue. “We have to begun the upward journey and our first target is to do well at the Asia Cup and qualify for the 2023 World Cup.”
While Pakistan will be going all out at the Asia Cup, for India, the eight-nation tournament is a testing ground to unearth future stars.
Following the high at the Tokyo Games where India picked up an Olympic medal after 41 years, the think-tank is now carefully and meticulously looking to build for the future. Having established themselves among the top-five hockey-playing nations and firmly holding on to their position on the back of consistent results, India now have the luxury to experiment.
In a departure from the past, wherein sending their best players to the continental championships was a given, India is now utilising these events to groom the future generation.
Earlier, in the absence of big trophies and medals, wins at the Asian Champions Trophy, Asia Cup, Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, etc. were considered a consolation prize as India kept trying to regain its footing in world hockey.
The medal at Tokyo has changed it all.
Post Tokyo, India have focused on reserving their top athletes for big-ticket tournaments. Alongside, they have begun the experimentation process and are also on lookout for replacement players, for the next Olympic cycle. Senior players Rupinder Pal Singh, Birendra Lakra, S.V. Sunil are no longer a part of the core group — the latter two will lead a team of youngsters at the Asia Cup — while goalkeeper Sreejesh P.R., a consistent performer, is in the twilight of his career.
Much like the Asian Champions Trophy in December 2021, the Asia Cup too will see India field a development side.
Coach Graham Reid had reflected on the thought of building a “deep and strong squad” as India entered the post-Olympic cycle. “While selecting this team (for the Asian Champions Trophy), we now must have our eyes on the future. It takes a deep and strong squad to build sustained success so players have to be given opportunities to perform,” Reid had said.
“We have picked a team that has a good mix of experience and younger guys who will have their chance to show what they can do.”
At the Asia Cup, India will do exactly that. Barring Lakra, Sunil and Simranjeet, India have picked up mostly unheralded players. With more than 400 plus international games experience between them, the veteran duo would be able mentors for the young and upcoming players, for whom Asia Cup would be a competitive ground to stake their claim at the permanent India berths. Former India captain Sardar Singh is on his first coaching assignment.
Focus on Paris Olympics
The move is reflective of India’s plan for the future. Having tasted success at the biggest stage of it all and possessing enough resources and scientific support to upgrade, the focus is clearly on the big prize.
India know that if they are to truly build on the legacy of the Tokyo medal, they will have to come good at Paris. Consistency is the hallmark of top teams and India too would have to achieve this rare essential, which has been their Achilles heel in the past.
Pakistan coach Aikman reflected on the same. “India is a big example for teams in Asia. They showed that you can come from very deep and reach far. It takes time, but if you do it consistently and bluntly that you will get there,” he said.
India play Pakistan on May 23, at 5 pm IST.
Indian Men's Hockey Team (Asia Cup 2022)
Goalkeepers: Pankaj Kumar Rajak, Suraj Karkera
Defenders: Nilam Sanjeep Xess, Yashdeep Siwach, Abhishek Lakra, Birendra Lakra (Captain), Manjeet, Dipsan Tirkey
Midfielders: Vishnukant Singh, Raj Kumar Pal, Mareeswaren Sakthivel, Sheshe Gowda B.M., Simranjeet Singh
Forwards: Pawan Rajbhar, Abharan Sudev, S.V. Sunil (vice-captain), Uttam Singh, S. Karthi
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