An Exclusive nterview with Pakistan hockey coach Hanif Khan x7|
August 21, 2001
|Planet Field Hockey
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By Khalid Hussain
Hanif Khan was one of the most colourful hockey players Pakistan has ever produced. At his prime, he was a mercurial forward who was feared by defenders all over the world because of his fast, scheming and aggressive style. In the seventies and the early eighties, Hanif garnered a reputation of being one of the finest forwards in the game.
Years after his retirement, Hanif retains most of his aggressive style and charisma as he works as Pakistan's head coach preparing the team for two major international tournaments that have eluded the country in recent years.
In an exclusive interview, Hanif laments the fact that Pakistan hockey has really gone down in recent years. The former Olympian like most of his fellow former stars finds it heart-breaking to see his sport failing to attract the masses any more.
But unlike most of his compatriots, he thinks all's not lost. He admits that hockey's popularity graph has really gone in Pakistan over the years and the national players were no more treated as stars by the public as was the case with hockey players in the past.
Hanif himself was always a star, a natural crowd-puller. When he used to play on the streets of Karachi as a small, 12-year-old, people of all over the neighborhood used to gather to see him dribbling past boys much bigger and older than him and score dozens of goals.
Strangely, Hanif never played on a proper hockey ground till he was in college. "My first experience of playing on a hockey field was not before I was 16. I was playing for my college in a match that attracted hundreds of spectators. In those days people loved to see hockey, any kind of hockey. You could see huge crowds in school and college level hockey and full grounds in domestic hockey."
When Hanif was at his prime, there were numerous domestic competitions held at the school, college and domestic level.
Remembering one such event that took place in Faisalabad in the spring of 1974, Hanif says: "I will always remember that tournament. It was my first outing in a major domestic event. I was playing for Karachi. You could see a sea of spectators for each and every match. The ground used to be so full that we had to keep the ball at least a foot inside the playing area for the safety of the spectators. Those were the days of glory for Pakistan hockey."
Hanif is convinced the popularity graph of Pakistan hockey went down because the team started to fail at the world arena. And the reason for the team's poor, according to him, was the early and at times forced retirements of several key players.
"Our we-know-all officials are the main culprits for the fall of hockey," says Hanif. "They made it sure that no player stick for too long to become a major star, forcing him to quit through one way or another without caring whether they had a good enough player to replace him or not."
Hanif himself left the game when he was still in his twenties. Most of his other fellow team members like Islahuddin Siddiqui, Samiullah, Hassan Sardar and Munawwaruz Zaman suffered a similar fate.
"You cannot expect your team to keep winning when you force your key players to retire prematurely," feels Hanif.
Hanif has a valid point here. Soon after Pakistan's gold-medal winning triumph in 1984 in Los Angeles (the country's last Olympic title), most of the players were forced to leave. Two years later in the 1986 World Cup in London, Pakistan finished 11th out of 12 teams, the only consolation for them was that they were placed above arch-rivals India who took the wooden spoon.
After years of title drought, Pakistan were once again taken to the victory stand by one of the country's finest players ever - Shahbaz Ahmed - and some of his trusted comrades who won the World Cup in 1994 in Sydney. But history repeated itself as once again most of the winning team members were disposed of in favour of a younger team. What happened next is any body's guess.
Pakistan have not won a world or Olympic title since then. In fact they have not even come close to achieving that feat.
Will they ever be able to regain any of those coveted crowns? Hanif is confident they will. "Believe it or not, but I am confident that our team is still good enough to beat the best in the world. The boys are talented and hard working and all they need is proper coaching and guidance."
How early they can do that? The national coach believes the good news can come as early as six months.
"I am not the sort of a person who like making predictions but I must say here that our team is perfectly capable of winning the World Cup this time."
Pakistan will be one of the 16 teams taking part in the 2002 World Cup to be held in February-March in Kuala Lumpur. The green shirts have won the Cup four times in the past.
However, their last World Cup outing, in 1998 in Utrecht (Holland), was a disaster as the Pakistanis even failed to reach the semi-finals of the tournament.
This time again it will be an uphill task for Hanif's boys who will be
locking horns with teams like world and Olympic champions Holland, South Korea, Australia and Germany for the Cup in KL.
And with a new World Cup format that will divide the 16 participating
nations in two pools will make the job tough to even qualify for the
However, Hanif is optimistic his men will not disappoint in the World Cup like they did four years back in Utrecht.
"We have been beating top sides in the recent past and I am hopeful we will do that again in KL."
The reason behind Hanif's optimism is the fact that Pakistan defeated world champions Holland 1-0 in a three test match series in Holland earlier this summer. In that series two matches were drawn while Pakistan won a test 3-0 - a result that was a pleasant surprise for the team officials as well as the team's fast disappearing fans back at home.
"When we can beat Holland in Holland then we can beat them in KL too." But the same side that defeated Holland lost to European champions Germany in a one-off test and later again in a four-nation tournament in Hamburg during Pakistan's European trip in June.
Hanif agrees that his team has its share of weak points which was why it was beaten twice by the fast-improving Germans.
"We have a brittle defense and a couple of the forwards are also
under-performing. But we have ample time to curb those flaws and I can
assure you that the team will be in a much better shape before it reaches KL."
Before the all-important World Cup, Pakistan have two other major international assignments that will be a litmus test for the side that is being coached by two of the greatest minds in Pakistan hockey - Hanif Khan and Shahbaz Ahmed.
Pakistan will be defending their title in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Kuala Lumpur from August 2 to 12 - a tournament that will serve as a warm-up event for the World Cup to be held at the same venue. Later in November, they host the Champions Trophy at the National Hockey Stadium in Lahore featuring the six best sides of the world - Holland, South Korea, Australia, Germany, Great Britain and hosts Pakistan.
Hanif agrees that the events are very crucial for his team's World Cup
build-up. "The team will have to do well in these events to get their confidence and morale up before the World Cup."
Both the Azlan Shah Cup and the Champions trophy will be featuring most of the top sides of the world. Pakistan's last appearance in a major international event was in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney where they
finished fourth behind Holland, Korea and Australia.
Since then they have played in a relatively low-profile tournament in Dhaka where they lost to India in the final and after that finished second behind Germany in the Hamburg four-nation event in June this year.
So the overall performance of the team has been quite encouraging though there have been a few bad shows in between like the defeat against India.
Hanif, however, is of the view that his boys are learning from each match and will certainly come out with a better show in the three major events they will be participating in the next six months.
"In the past, the weakest point of the team has been its officials. The team lacked in strategy and planning which was why it failed to deliver the goods," he claims. "Taking the risk of sounding self-praising or something, I must say that this grey area is being taken care of. The team coaches working hard on the planning side and the boys are being taught how to play against different oppositions."
Hanif is at the helm of a three-member coaches' panel that was appointed by the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) earlier this year. Former Olympians Shahbaz Ahmed and Khawaja Junaid are the other two members.
The concept of a coaches' panel has been borrowed from Europe where most of the teams prefer to have two to three coaches rather than just one which is normally the practice in countries like Pakistan.
The panel idea is not the only one taken from the West. Hanif and fellow coaches are also teaching their players to adopt the European style that puts more burden on the mid-field but in the meantime makes the combination more attacking without putting any extra-pressure on
The idea of adopting the European style, according to Hanif will help
Pakistan give teams like Holland a taste of their own medicine.
"In today's hockey that is played on fast, artificial surface, you have to play like the Europeans play. Now you cannot rely on the classical Asian style that has now become obsolete like the grassy fields on which we used to dominate in the past. Teams like Australia, Korea and Malaysia shifted to European style and they have improved a lot. I think its time for us to follow suit."
Hanif is confident that his players will successfully shift to the European style over the next few months.
"We have already been successful in playing with a European-style formation during our recent tour of Europe and the boys will only improve in the coming matches."
The biggest plus point for Hanif and his fellow coaches is the 24-year-old Sohail Abbas, rated as the best short corner executioner in the world. Sohail has been Pakistan's highest scorer for the last three years and is likely to continue to do the bulk of the scoring for the team in the forthcoming tournaments.
Hanif, however, is confident that his forwards will also do their share of scoring to lift some pressure off the Karachi-based Sohail. "You cannot win the World Cup while relying on a single player. To do that your entire team should perform."
Hanif is focussing his eyes on the World Cup because he think a title-winning triumph in KL will provide a big boost to hockey in Pakistan. "To bring hockey back on the right track, we need to win back the World Cup. Once we do that, hockey can start to expect the public support it needs to survive and flourish."
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