Muhammad Rizwan: We stayed focused and did not stop training

With uncertainty about Pakistan making it to the World Cup, captain Muhammad Rizwan Sr told his players that it didn’t matter if they went to India or not, but they should not give training a miss.

The Pakistan skipper says: “The way we have trained, I am confident of the team’s success."   -  AFP

Until a few weeks ago, Pakistan’s chances of making it to the hockey World Cup looked bleak. With no money, the Pakistan Hockey Federation found itself in a spot, but with electronics giant Haier coming in as a sponsor, the team is all set to travel to Bhubaneswar for the tournament.

Captain Muhammad Rizwan Sr, in an interview, made it clear that his side has had good preparation in Lahore even in these times of uncertainty, but admitted that it will miss the services of its previous head coach Roelant Oltmans.

You will be playing a tournament in India after four long years. Is there a challenge of playing here?

Playing in India is always a big challenge. Fans from both countries want their teams to win and every time we play, the entire country pins its hopes on us. We are going with a lot of hope and our target is to play to our potential and perform well. If we put in our 110 per cent effort, we can go far. The way we have trained, I am confident of the team’s success.

Until a few days ago, there was uncertainty over the team’s participation in the World Cup. Did it have an impact on the team’s preparations?

Our job was to train, and I was hopeful that we will finally travel to India for the World Cup. I had no doubt about that. I am grateful to our new sponsor, Haier, for bailing us out. In such a grave situation, they came forward and helped out Pakistan hockey. I am really grateful that they did so much for the national game.

Well, such situations do affect the team in general, but we held a meeting with players at that time and asked them to stay focused and not stop training. I told them that it doesn’t matter if we go [to India] or not, but we should not give training a miss and I am happy that we could maintain that till the end. We had long training sessions in Lahore, despite no clarity on whether we would be able to participate in the World Cup.

Like you said, there was not much clarity. So how did you motivate the team?

We told them that money is not everything; it is a matter of pride to play for the mulk (country). That is of great importance. It is true that we were going through rough times, but we knew this will pass. As a senior player, I told the boys that ups and downs are quite common and even drew reference to India. There was a time when even Indian hockey was going through a rough phase, but now they have again risen. Similarly, with the sponsor coming in, even Pakistan hockey has been able to overcome the situation. I hope it will only go up from here. Our target has been to stick around as a unit and focus on our job. I appreciate the boys for listening to me and being together during the tough time.

A couple of months ago, Oltmans resigned as head coach of Pakistan. Now that you are headed to the World Cup, do you miss the Dutch coach, who is widely appreciated for bringing about a change in Asian hockey?

Oltmans is a very good coach. I was surprised when he quit. I remember when I was playing a league tournament in Holland, I spoke to Oltmans and we discussed the future. The day I was supposed to leave for Pakistan, he texted me saying that he has left the job. It was a surprise for me. Everyone wants to take a step forward and Oltmans too did that. Undoubtedly, he is a very good coach and we will miss someone like him. Our present coaches, however, are equally good. But even then I feel Oltmans should not have left us in such a situation.

Since Oltman’s exit, what changes have you brought to the side? Has the style of play changed?

Oltmans would focus more on defence. His idea was that if the defence is strong, then the attacking unit will manage to open the goalmouth. We are maintaining a similar strategy, but it’s just that the focus on attack is a bit more now. We have improved a lot. In the Asian Champions Trophy fixture against India last month, we lost 1-3. We scored a goal, but then went on the defensive and as a result we could not score and the pressure was mounting up. It was tough to come out of it.

Later we watched video clippings to find out what went wrong. We were surprised by the way we allowed the pressure to mount, but all of us have worked hard to rectify our mistakes.

The last time Pakistan played in India at the Champions Trophy in 2014, the game was marred with controversy as some of the Pakistan players took off their shirts and allegedly made obscene gestures at the crowd after beating India in the semifinals. That strained the relationship between the two hockey associations. This time, have you taken any initiative to ensure that such things are not repeated?

As a captain, I have asked the boys to be calm. Last time we visited India [in 2014], there was an incident where some of the junior players got carried away. It should not have happened. This time I have strictly told them that let the fans do whatever they have to; we will focus only on our game. It is not necessary to react just because the fans said something or the other. We are here to play and not fight a war. So, we have decided not to react to any off-field incidents.

Is there anything particular advice you have give to the players?

I have told them that such incidents may happen at the club level, but we should not forget that we are donning the national colours. So, it is a must that we stay out of all the provocations.

At the 2014 Asian Games, some Indian players too reacted strongly after beating us, and some of our junior players were upset about that. So, when they won in the Champions Trophy, our boys got excited. But when the senior players explained to them, they realised that such a thing should not have happened. After all, we were the guest nation and such a thing puts us down. It happened all of a sudden and was not planned. So, it was tough to control the boys.

Who do you consider the favourite to win the World Cup?

Hockey has changed immensely and it is not just about India and Pakistan. Now, every team is a favourite and anyone can spring a surprise. Whoever has a field day will win. There is no clear favourite.