Hockey Asia Cup 2017: From the new Super 4s format to Pakistan's struggles, interesting takeaways from event
India and Pakistan still play the sport’s marquee games, but we did not see the part-sublime part- brutal standoffs that mark the rivalry.
The Asia Cup is done and dusted. Top-ranked India were the best team, and the title victory was not a surprise. Predictably, Asia’s top four teams finished inside of the first four. Malaysia showed that their good performance in the 2017 World League Semi Finals was not one-off. Two recent victories over India, and a tightly-fought contest in the finals, reconfirms Malaysia’s steady ascension. Pakistan played well in patches, and made a good mental recovery after a heavy defeat to India to win the bronze medal game. Korea, with a thinking coach, had a different plan for each game, almost inflicting a defeat on India, even though their structure unraveled in the bronze medal game.
Among the 5th-8th place playoffs, China’s loss to Bangladesh was not a surprise. Bangladesh, starved of competition, improved with each game in this competition. According to a source, the Chinese, exhausted after their National Games in September, had sent a developmental team from Inner Mongolia, which won the right to represent China by meeting the cost. This might have cost China a few places in the final rankings. Japan, host to the 2020 Olympics, sent its strongest team, as did the others.
In the early stages of the tournament, Malaysia had the best structure, even when they were struggling to score field goals. Winning one and drawing one game against Korea, a country that excels in medal games, was a no mean feat. Japan was a bit unlucky not to win against Pakistan, despite being the better of the exchanges. Oman, the most physical team in the tournament, was unlucky to lose to China.
India and Pakistan still play the sport’s marquee games, but we did not see the part-sublime part- brutal standoffs that mark the rivalry. There is considerable amiability among former players and officials. The Pakistanis seem content to survive, as a deeper despondency seems to weigh them down. This is what emerged from my discussions with the legendary player, Hassan Sardar, now the chief selector of the men’s team, and Muhammed Ali Khan, a selector for the Pakistan women’s team, who played in the 1992 Junior Asia Cup and coached the Pakistani team at the 2014 Nanjing Youth Olympics.
Sardar and Muhammed Ali, keeping their humour intact despite the gloom surrounding Pakistani hockey, told me how this great hockey nation has been diminished by not getting enough games. There is recognition that terrorism has stopped international teams from visiting Pakistan. The development structure has wilted, and it is difficult to spot talented players, who have no platform to showcase skills. Thus, they are drawn towards cricket and football. The revival of India-Pakistan hockey will bring back sponsors, asserted Sardar. On the other side, the Indian view of India- Pakistan hockey is framed in the larger political context, an issue both Sardar and Muhammed Ali found awkward to address.
An important takeaway from the tournament was the novel Super 4s format, which Tayyab Ikram, the chief executive officer of the Asian Hockey Federation, told me he had introduced. This was smart marketing, as even a single extra game between India and Pakistan would earn extra revenue from television coverage. Indian coach Sjoerd Marijne is a supporter, arguing that it tests mental strength and delivers more high-intensity games. Terry Walsh, the high performance director of Malaysian hockey, thought the format was physically taxing.
Another takeaway was the memorandum of understanding signed between the Asian Hockey Federation and the Oman Hockey Association. As Ikram pointed out, with a 92-year hockey history, Oman is the only country in the Middle East where indigenous Omanis play hockey. With diplomacy done on the sidelines, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong stepped aside for Oman to host the first Asian Games qualifying tournament in April 2018. Ikram’s plan is to increase player and spectator involvement in Asia, as participation in the Asian Games will increase to 10-12 teams. More broadly, “hockey is in a stable position,” and will remain in the 2014 Los Angeles Olympics, Ikram said.
The Asia Cup has been a fine example of Asian togetherness. For the host nation, it could potentially trigger a hockey fever, where a much-loved sport has ceded space to cricket and football. Over thirty five thousand spectators watched the finals of the 1985 Asia Cup in Dhaka, but the game now struggles. Abdus Sadeque, general secretary of the Bangladesh Hockey Federation, told me that the country has only two artificial pitches, and, ahead of the tournament, the renovation of the Maulana Bhashani Stadium could take place only because the government stepped in. Happily, Bangladesh performed well, both on the hockey field, and in countering the rain, which had threatened to flood the pitch and disrupt this memorable Asia Cup.
Jitendra Nath Misra is a retired ambassador, and the vice-president of Jawaharlal Nehru Hockey Tournament Society.
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