Salman Akbar is a veteran hockey goal-keeper who made his debut for Pakistan’s hockey team in 2001. Termed by Olympian Shahid Ali Khan as one of the most hard-working players in the game, Akbar has won the 2005 Rabo Trophy and the 2010 Asian Games gold medal with Pakistan. He was adjudged the ‘best keeper’ in both events. Here, he previews Pakistan’s opening match against Holland at the Champions Trophy on Saturday.
The Pakistan Hockey Federation’s recent decision to dissolve the selection committee and give the coaching staff more authority over team selection came after much criticism in the wake of Pakistan’s abysmal seventh-place finish at the London Olympics.
Manager Akhtar Rasool, coach Hanif Khan, assistant coach Ajmal Lodhi and goalkeeper coach Ahmed Alam were given the responsibility of preparing for the International Super Series 9’s and the Champions Trophy being played in Australia.
Champion's Trophy is the toughest tournament of world hockey as it has all the top teams. Introduced by former PHF head, Noor Khan, in 1978, initially only the top six teams qualified for the tournament. However, eight teams played in 2007 and then later in 2011 with the same pattern set to be followed in this year’s edition.
Pakistan, currently ranked number nine, got a wildcard entry into this year’s competition along with India, who are ranked 11th. For the first time in history, temas are divided into pools and Pakistan are placed in Group B along with Australia, Belgium and Holland. Australia have won the title 12 times in the past while Pakistan have won thrice in 1978, 1980 and 1994.
Holland's give-and-go attack
Pakistan will be opening their campaign against London Olympic finalists Holland. The third-ranked team has many new faces and youngsters in their squad for the Champions Trophy along with one of the best penalty corner scorers, Mink Van Der Weerden. Holland like to have give-and-go in their attack which is helped by their strikers’ understanding, speed and skill. They have a very balanced defense and their goal keeper Jaap Stockmann is one of the best in the world.
Holland like to wait for their opponents to make the mistake in the build-up and also like to steal the ball from the midfield. Pakistan should have a compact defense against them and keep the field small because they always want space for their attack. Pakistan’s strikers will have to play more around their defense instead of showing individual skills.
Pakistan are in Melbourne with only two changes from the London Olympics squad. Sohail Abbas was not even called for the training camp which is shocking as he is still one of the best in his business.
Mohammad Imran, the captain, and Mohammad Ateeq will have to take over Abbas’ role and the coaching staff is expected to use indirect variation after the experience in London. Imran Butt should be given a chance in goal as Imran Shah’s performance at the Super Series in Perth was not impressive. Whoever will be in goal will have to be very alert and will have to anticipate rather than react. As a whole, Pakistan have to be very alert at the back in the build-up and a lot of movement is needed in the midfield and the front line to break Holland and create chances.
The Greenshirts should start with half court and wait for the right time to accelerate because if they force the attack, they will be in trouble. Pakistan should take the Champions Trophy seriously and aim to qualify for the event next year instead of relying on a wild card entry. With two pools, the chances of reaching the final stages of the tournament are high.
Players to watch:
Rashid Mehmood and Shakeel Abbasi