KARACHI: Former world champions Pakistan are hoping to push for their return to the top in world hockey next year by shining in the elite Champions Trophy in New Delhi.
Buoyed up by their title-winning triumph in the Asian Games in the Chinese city of Guangzhou last month, Pakistan are eyeing a forceful showing in the Champions Trophy which will feature eight of the world’s top hockey teams.
Pakistan have not featured in the last three editions of the prestigious tournament and will only be competing in the 2011 edition after being awarded a wild-card entry by the International Hockey Federation (FIH) last week. The FIH has decided to raise the number of competing teams from six to eight, allowing Pakistan to join the ranks of the top sides.
The Greenshirts haven’t won the Champions Trophy crown since 1994 and at number eight in the international rankings, they will be among the underdogs in the tournament that will feature Australia, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, South Korea and hosts India.
But ask Zeeshan Ashraf, the Pakistan captain, and he will tell you that any team taking Pakistan for granted will do so at its own peril.
“Pakistan hockey can be at par with the top teams in the world,” Ashraf told ‘The News’ on Monday. “The Asian Games victory has given us a huge boost. Our morale is up and the boys are really hungry for more success which is why I’m confident that we can beat any team,” stressed the seasoned defender.
When Pakistan last featured in the Championship Trophy — in 2007 in Kuala Lumpur — they crashed to a disappointing sixth-place finish.
But Ashraf believes that things would be different for Pakistan in New Delhi.
“We can be at the podium in the Champions Trophy,” he said. “We’ve been a bit unlucky in the past but if you look at our results you’ll see that we have played really close matches against top teams like Australia and the Netherlands,” he said.
Pakistan lost a close encounter 0-1 against world champions Australia in their Commonwealth Games clash in New Delhi last October. They drew a series against the Dutch before that.
Ashraf said that much will depend on how Pakistan prepare for the Champions Trophy to be played at the end of next year.
“We have to keep playing international matches, preferably against top teams,” he said.
Pakistan have a break till next May when they will feature in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Kuala Lumpur. They are also planning to take tart in the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy in China.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF) is trying to line up Test matches at home and abroad in a bid to give its team maximum possible match practice.
Ashraf said that Pakistan will focus on the Champions Trophy as it will serve as a litmus test for them ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
“It will be after quite some time that we will be playing against the top teams (in the Champions Trophy),” he said.
“It will be an excellent opportunity for us to see where we stand. It will help us identify our weaknesses and we will have six or seven months to work on them before the all-important Olympics.”
Pakistan hockey has endured several frustrating years but Ashraf is confident that 2011 will be a good year for the Greenshirts.
“We have ended 2010 on a winning note and I’m sure that we carry on the good work in 2011 to make it an even better year for Pakistan hockey.”