Emotion will be the overriding theme in what promises to be the biggest match of the Asian Champions Trophy hockey at Kuantan on Sunday. It won't be just another match between India and Pakistan — in terms of numbers, it's the 166th match between the two — it will be a roller coaster, a potboiler of emotions, skills and expectations from fans in both countries.
Defeats in this fixture mark a low that take teams days to recover; victories are like energy boosters that drive them to the trophy. It's a narrow mindset that coaches have dwelt upon, but victories against each other have been more important than progress in the tournament.
The legendary Shahbaz Ahmed, arguably one of the greatest Pakistan forwards, said after the 2-5 defeat to India at the 1995 SAF Games final: "You just made it very difficult for us to go back to Pakistan."
Incidentally, at that time, Pakistan was the 1994 World Cup champions, a tournament where India had finished fifth.
But rankings have no legitimacy when it comes to an India-Pakistan game. The former are ranked sixth to the latter's 13th. It's a match of skills, but coaching manuals also mention an instinct called "nerves". An India-Pakistan match thrives on nerves, and the team that holds it the best usually ends up winning. Khawaja Junaid, bronze medalist at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and current coach of the team, speaks of "holding your emotions" as the key to success in India-Pakistan clashes. "Both teams are prone to get excited and emotional in such a match," says Junaid. "We made mistakes against Malaysia and got punished. I told the players not to get emotional. It's a match; we need to win. And that is what I need from the team against India."
Not too long back, just after the 2012 London Olympics, Junaid said, "Korea finished eighth, India 12th. This has proved our Asian supremacy, which we gained with a gold medal at the Asian Games two years ago. There's always a sort of competition against India and finishing ahead of them is a respite."
But this is a different Junaid who speaks of a stronger India that Pakistan will face. Since London, Pakistan have failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and the Rio Olympics and were beaten in the Asian Games final by India. Things have spiraled out of control in Pakistan hockey and Junaid is seen as the cool head who could restore balance to a nation that gave the world some of the most skilled players of all time. "We have played only seven matches since the 2015 World League in Antwerp," he explained. "India has changed their structure after London, and today they're a side on the rise. Their Rio performance wasn't too bad. It will be a difficult match but I expect my boys to hold their nerves and not get excited at the prospect that the entire sub-continent is watching us play."
Keeping the emotional quotient in front, Junaid speaks about ball possession as the underlying theme of what will transpire against India. "We do well when we have ball possession. That ensures the opposition is looking out and defending. We lost to Malaysia because we got excited after taking the lead and gave away possession. We were punished. Against Korea we kept the ball and were rewarded with a goal in the last minute," he said.
It's quite a contrasting with Indian coach Roelant Oltmans. The Dutchman is one of the rare few to have coached both Pakistan and India. And he understands the cultural and emotional chord which runs through the heart of anything that is India vs Pakistan.
Against Japan, when India was 9-2 up, a defender didn't block space leading to a Japanese counter-attack. Oltmans shot out of the bench like an Olympic sprinter, bellowing away at the Indian defence. It was strange because India was leading by seven goals with five minutes to go. "I never accept if you don't do the job in the proper way," he said. "I will never accept this and people need to know what they have to do and if you are unsure about your positions, it will be completely unaccepted and that’s the way I am. To guide is my job. The most important thing is for the player is to do his job properly, whether the scoreline is 7-1 or whatever."
Both teams are underplaying the turbulence that has hit India-Pakistan relationships. Junaid spoke of the friendship that is the cornerstone of an hockey match between the arch-rivals. "You show your friendship and not a fight like on the borders," he said. "The team is young and an India match is the perfect opportunity to show your potential. We know that India at the moment is much better, but my team will try its best."
Before the tournament, Indian captain Sreejesh had brought up the Uri attack, and said a win will be dedicated to Indian soldiers. But the Sreejesh of Kuantan cut a much more mellow figure. "It is only about one match at a time," the Indian captain said. "We just need to get three points from each game and that is our focus. If I talk about Pakistan, back home it is an emotional feeling, but for us they are another team and we are playing against them. The external pressure comes from people contacting the players through social media. So it's better to stay away from them and focus and just concentrate on how well we can contribute to the team. That is more important for is in this match."
Political tensions have always been the central theme of an India-Pakistan match. Take the 1990 World Cup in Lahore, held during a time when the Kashmir crisis was at its peak. India was considering not sending a team. But Pakistan promised security and India relented. The Indians didn't get a day at the ground in practice. Much of the warm-ups were at the hotel and the passage way between rooms was used for practice drills. The team bus didn't have India written on it. At the ground, it was difficult to play as the crowds chanted ‘Kashmir and Azadi.’ In fact, during the match against Holland, while the crowds chanted and abused the players, even the match referee asked the Indian team if they wanted to discontinue and play the next day. The Dutch suggested they play before an empty stadium. But captain Pargat Singh refused, and the match went on. Those were the days of the influential separatist group Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. Lahore was politically charged.
Today, there is ill-will that grips both nations, but the teams and players would try and defuse the tension. In the 1991 Sultan Azlan Shah tournament, Pargat was shown two yellow cards which meant that he had to sit out the match against Pakistan. But Shahbaz Ahmed, the Pakistan captain asked the disciplinary committee to reconsider and allow the Indian captain to play. India beat Pakistan 1-0 through a wonderful Mukesh Kumar goal, a super shot from the top of the circle. After he retired, Pargat was asked to name the best forward he had faced as a defender. "Shahbaz," was the Indian captain's answer.
Away from the hawkishness and jingoism that has gripped both the nations, maybe, it's time to look beyond the victories and defeats. Emotions will rule, the fans will unfurl the flag from the terraces of Delhi and Lahore. But, just for a second, beyond the political battles, rhetoric and two nations on the boil, some may stand and applaud a match purely for its skills.
Catch the live updates of India vs Pakistan Hockey Asian's Trophy 2016 here.
Updated Date: Oct 23, 2016 16:20 PM