India-Pakistan hockey romance in the air ahead of cricket

The two arch rivals face off in Chennai on August 9 in Asian Champions Trophy, an appetiser for Asian Games

Representative image of hockey match between India and Pakistan (Photo: Getty Images)
Representative image of hockey match between India and Pakistan (Photo: Getty Images)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Come next Wednesday, August 9, one of the oldest sporting rivalries of the sub-continent will resurface when India and Pakistan lock horns in hockey at the Asian Champions Trophy in Chennai. The six-nation tournament, which serves as an appetiser for the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China next month, takes off this afternoon.

The significance of a clash between the two neighbours, in the light of their cricket teams not travelling to either countries even for a multi-nation event like the Asia Cup, needs no over-emphasising. They make an exception only for the ICC events as bi-lateral series is out of question, thanks to the government policies, and it’s against such a backdrop that the two erstwhile superpowers of the game will square off at the Major Radhakrishnan Stadium.

Incidentally, the ICC World Cup in India has the big game between these two on October 15 at Ahmedabad (the date may change), while they will be clashing at least twice in the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka in September.

For now, it’s not going to be an easy ride for the bronze medallists at the Tokyo Olympics as the other four teams in the fray are South Korea, Malaysia, Japan and China. The six teams will play in a round robin format with the top four making it to the semi-finals – which keeps the possibilities open for another Indo-Pak joust later.

A hockey match between the two countries was the real deal back in the day – be it in a bi-lateral series, Asian Games, Olympics or the World Cup. India’s only World Cup triumph in 1975, incidentally, came when they edged out the archir rivals 2-1, thanks to goals from Surjit Singh and Ashok Kumar. An Asiad final, as per the pecking order, ended with a match-up between these two teams dishing out a stirring display of stickwork and field goals.

The scenario started changing with new millennium as Pakistan, four-time world champions (1971, ’78, ’82 and ’94), was not a part of the Tokyo Olympics and failed to qualify for the 2023 World Cup in India. The Men in Blue, however, have seen a healthy resurgence as they ultimately ended a 41-year drought of Olympic medals in Tokyo and had been at their consistent self in recent years.

It’s been five years that a Pakistan senior team last played on Indian soil in the 2018 World Cup in Bhubaneswar and they are looking forward to the highly billed clash. Muhammad Saqlain, their current coach who was a member of their 2005 Champions Trophy squad in Chennai, said in an interview with TOI: ‘’It’s a different game. India and Pakistan are known for the attacking hockey that they play. The coaches of top teams like Holland and Germany love to watch us play….I believe that India and Pakistan should play more matches against each other as they will help the teams take their games to the next level.’’

The Hockey India president, Dilip Tirkey – one of the finest defenders from the country – struck a positive note on Wednesday when he said that India were ready to travel to Pakistan to play the qualifiers for 2024 Paris Olympics. The Asian Games champions get an automatic entry to Olympics but in case India need to play the qualifiers, Tirkey said they would go to Pakistan and Spain for the qualifiers – though that would need a seal of approval from the government.

It may be recalled that the Pakistan football team had also fought off a late visa hurdle to travel to India in late June to play in the SAFF Championship.

India’s schedule (Asian Champions Trophy): August 3: India vs China; Aug 4: India vs Japan; Aug 6: India vs Malaysia; Aug 7: India vs South Korea; Aug 9: India vs Pakistan. Aug.11: Semi-finals; Aug. 13: Final.

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