HWL: Focus on Pakistan in high voltage encounter against India

The two teams would face off on Sunday, in the Hockey World League Semifinals in London, a competition where the result holds little value for India but is extremely significant for a struggling Pakistan.

The neighbours' rivalry on the cricket field may be the more hyped one but for sheer intensity, hockey comes out tops.   -  Getty Images

In December 2014, a rag-tag Pakistan hockey team landed in Bhubaneswar for the elite Champions Trophy. Doubtful till the last minute and struggling to arrange money even to travel and stay for the 15-day tournament, the team could only participate after generous support from a Pakistani businessman who funded its trip.

It ended with silver, defeating India in the semifinals in the dying seconds of a game that was pure exhilaration and a throwback to the fast and furious contests of yore between the two teams. It was an Indian team that had been miles ahead in terms of its preparations, planning, support and even strength and skill, playing at home. But none of it mattered to the desperate Pakistan team that had nothing to lose.

A lot has happened since that eventful Saturday but it continues to highlight why all bets are off during an India versus Pakistan match on the hockey field. Rankings, strategies and structures all go for a toss when they face off. The neighbours' rivalry on the cricket field may be the more hyped one but for sheer intensity, hockey comes out tops.

And so it would be that, once again, the two teams would face off on Sunday, in the Hockey World League Semifinals in London, a competition where the result holds little value for India but is extremely significant for a struggling Pakistan.

As two powerhouses of the sport with similar skill set and passion to match the boasting rights in terms of trophies till the mid 1990s, explosive on-field battles were expected. But the past few years have changed it all. The present Indian and Pakistan teams are a far cry from the past.

While there is no doubting that there are still flashes of brilliance in the Pakistan squad, the system and organisation required to mould it into a winning unit has been missing for a long time now. And that's where India has moved forward.

Indian hockey missed the Olympics bus in 2008. A year later the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked in Lahore and since then, the sporting world has never been the same in these parts of the world. While Indian hockey moved towards a more professional set-up, cleaned up its house and set its sight on targets beyond the immediate neighbourhood, Pakistan hockey deteriorated. A robust domestic structure crumbled, exposure went down and the internal bickering continued.

India also began playing a lot more against bigger and better teams, going beyond Pakistan and Malaysia and concentrating on Germany, Holland, Australia and England. It expanded the mindset and, for the Indian players at least, reduced Pakistan to just another opponent.

The series of foreign coaches helped a lot in this, focussing more on the world than the immediate neighbourhood. India went on to win bronze at the 2015 HWL Finals and a silver at 2016 Champions Trophy, both for the first time.

Pakistan, on the other hand, continued to slip. The domestic problems piled up, players and staff experimented and fiddled with and long-term vision was absent. It ended in four-time champion Pakistan missing the World Cup for the first time ever in 2014 and then the Olympics in 2016. That it still managed to finish runner-up at Bhubaneswar was a testament to how much it mattered to them.

Interestingly, on paper, there isn't much difference. India is without quite a few of its big names, due to injuries or otherwise, and the average age of players in the Indian side is less (23.7) than that of Pakistan (24.3), supporting coach Roelant Oltmans' attempt to blood youngsters for bigger events ahead.

India is ahead on experience but Pakistan too has four players with over 100 caps, and another four with over 50. Seven of those from 2014 are in the present side for Pakistan while only six from that India side are here.

In a way, Pakistan has more at stake. The top-three at London would qualify for the HWL Finals and a top-five finish would give Pakistan a shot at the World Cup next year – both tournaments to be hosted in India and so giving it a free pass. As such, performances more than results matter here in terms of advancements for India.

India's planning for this tournament too has been better. While the Hockey India League was important, it was followed by Azlan Shah Cup and a three-nation tournament including Germany and Belgium. Pakistan had a few test matches against Australia and New Zealand, losing badly, and a series against Ireland.

The last time the teams faced off was at the Asian Champions Trophy in October last year, where India beat Pakistan twice, including the final, by identical margins of 3-2. India had thrashed it 5-1 at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup before that, in March 2016.

Just like in cricket, the Indians have moved beyond turning a Pakistan tie into a do-or-die encounter. Sure, the passions are whipped up to insane levels on both sides of the border but again, like in cricket, a win against India becomes far more important for Pakistan than the other way round.

The way it crumbled in its 6-0 defeat against Canada in the previous match showed how far behind Pakistan hockey had fallen. Defeating a practical India, more concerned about constantly working on its weaknesses, plugging the gaps and nurturing youngsters, remains its lone thread of hope to retain dignity.