The men’s Hockey Asia Cup begins in Dhaka on 11 October. Being a qualifying event for the 2018 World Cup, and with FIH ranking points on offer, it promises to tie the contestants in fierce stand-offs. There will be climbers and fallers, but the winners’ cartel in Asian hockey – South Korea, Pakistan and India – has been so enduring that a dark horse is difficult to spot. Maybe Malaysia? Japan is the second dark horse; China, Oman and Bangladesh are content to bring passion rather than winning qualities into the equation.
But first, let us see things in perspective. Asian hockey is in relative decline, finding itself in the second tier of world hockey. South Korea, Pakistan and India do not have titles outside Asia. Lately, only India have won medals at the world level, ranking among the top-10 teams. But being sixth in ranking matters less than performance.
South Korea are yet to qualify for the World Cup, so they will have enough adrenaline to go all the way. Do Pakistan and India have a matching appetite? Having already qualified for the World Cup, they will need some magic motivation. Pakistan have a better record in title games than India but have slipped lately. India have a history of throwing in the towel before the semi-finals of the major tournaments like the Olympics, World Cup and Champions Trophy.
With four Asia Cup titles in the past (1993, 1999, 2009 and 2013), 13th-ranked South Korea have history in their favour. Recent performances - a sixth-place finish in the 2016 Champions Trophy and a ninth-place finish at the 2017 Hockey World League Semi-finals – raise questions about their form. But manager Kim Yoon Dong says the team is in transition and is now ready to show its customary panache. South Korea are one of the favourites for the title.
Another favourite would have to be Pakistan. With four world titles and three Asia Cup titles (1982, 1985, 1989), 14th-ranked Pakistan have been blighted by poor management and security concerns. They have few opportunities to play international games. Pakistan have a new management, and have recalled experienced players. This could make things better rather than worse.
India, on the other hand, have a resume of failures at the highest level, though the management no longer considers success at the Asian level (with Asia Cup titles in 2003 and 2007) enough. India have folded up in FIH tournaments like the Hockey World League Semi-finals in 2015 and 2017, against England, Malaysia and Canada. The change of coach has introduced a new philosophy. This has put the Asia Cup awkwardly in the middle of India’s restructuring cycle. Yet, India have enough in their arsenal to be a serious title contender.
Malaysia can't be counted out too. At the 2017 Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, 13th-ranked Malaysia improved with each game, creating the base for higher laurels, finishing fourth in the Hockey World League Semi-finals in 2017, the best for an Asian team. With momentum, Malaysia will be a title contender.
Then we have the ever-improving Japan. They put it across mighty Australia at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup this year. China are the other improved outfit. Oman and Bangladesh play good hockey, though Bangladesh were a disappointing fifth in the Hockey World League round two.
Now, where does India actually stand, being the top-ranked Asian team? Indian players are now learning the art of patient build-up. The hit and miss tactics of the past and the all-out counter-attacks are no longer preferred. The Indians now regroup in a structured way. There has been an improvement in the technical, tactical and the psychological aspects.
Skeptics would argue that without the giants of world hockey the Asia Cup may be low on value. But sports also live the emotions they trigger. The world still considers the India versus Pakistan hockey rivalry the pinnacle even if the two teams are no longer the force they used to be. At the Hockey World League in the London summer, Hockey England sold the game as the marquee contest. An India versus Pakistan encounter in Bangladesh has enough political ballast to interest Partition’s three children.
This rivalry is rooted in historical fissures centred around community and identity. It has so many emotional layers sewn into it that sometimes the emotion overtakes the actual play, forcing meltdowns, traumas, jostles, media wars, and other darkly spectacular events. Pakistan and India play one another as if there is nothing to live for after defeat. This gives their matches a flavour for the times, helping market a sometimes-beleaguered sport.
In the past, Pakistan’s psychological edge saw them inflict defeats on India in the majority of title games. Lately, India have found weapons to unsettle Pakistan. Remember how goalkeeper PR Sreejesh hustled Pakistani rivals in the shootout of the 2014 Asian Games final?
But will either or both reach the final of the Asia Cup? We shall leave that for the astrologers to answer.
Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador and vice-president of Jawaharlal Nehru Hockey Tournament Society.
Updated Date: Oct 20, 2017 11:53 AM