Pakistan might not be the same quality side that it once was, they might be facing their worst financial crunch ever, the jobs for hockey players might be getting less and the results might not be favouring them. But Abu Bakr Mahmood, the 20-year-old drag-flicker, prefers to see it as glass half-full.
Mahmood is the youngest member of the Pakistani team that is in Bhubaneswar for the World Cup. But his poise and confidence, both on and off the field, defy his age.
Of course, he does the usual 20-year-old things – hairstyle, for instance. “I change it for every tournament. I like trying out new looks,” he says with a smile.
It’s the one thing he has picked up from his favourite sportsman – Cristiano Ronaldo. For everything else, he’s looked up to Pakistani legend Muhammad Nadeem Ahmed. Mahmood calls him the Ronaldo of hockey.
“When I was growing up, I wanted to be like him. His playing style attracted me a lot and I tried to copy everything he did,” Mahmood says.
Mahmood’s initiation to hockey was through his father, who was a big fan. But it was at school where he really fell in love with the sport. He played for an hour every day after school, without compromising studies.
“Family stressed on studying, so I had to get that balance right. I stayed up till late in the night to study, but never missed a session of hockey,” he says.
Working his way up
Faisalabad, home to players like Shahbaz Senior and Rana Mujahid, has a great hockey tradition. But it was the tradition in Gojra – the cradle of Pakistan hockey that’s just an hour away from Faisalabad – that really inspired him.
By the time he reached class 5, Mahmood was a regular in his school team and soon, he was picked to be a part of the Pakistan Hockey Federation’s academy.
His rise since then has been phenomenal. After a few months at the academy, Mahmood received a call-up for the Pakistan under-16 team and in 2014, he was selected for the junior team. He made his debut for Pakistan colts at the Sultan of Johor Cup and the performances there earned him a senior team call two years later.
But his emergence has coincided with the fall of Pakistan hockey. The team failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and Rio Olympics in 2016, which he says had a huge impact on the development of the sport. But Mahmood chooses to look at the positive side.
“Because of the financial issues, we couldn’t go and play outside the country. Even going for Azlan Shah Cup became difficult. But the federation strengthened our domestic hockey. There was a domestic tournament every month so we had year-long activity, which ensured our attachment with hockey wasn’t lost,” he says.
Mahmood also dismisses the theory that the jobs for hockey players are drying up in the country. He cites himself as an example.
“I work with Pakistan National Bank. We have four-five new departments and all juniors are getting jobs. In between, there were limited jobs and the number of players, too, was limited. Now, we have lots of new job options,” he says.
Excited for Pakistan Hockey League
What’s also really gotten him excited is PHF’s announcement of starting a league modeled on cricket’s Pakistan Super League.
The federation announced in November that the league will feature six teams – Islamabad, Peshawar, Quetta, Kashmir, Karachi and Lahore – and will be played in four cities four different cities – Faisalabad, Gojra, Karachi and Lahore.
There’s a caveat, though. Whether the league takes place will depend on whether the international federations release their players. Mahmood hopes they will get the green signal.
“Security is not an issue at all, it’s just a thing created by the media. Inshallah, we will have top players of the world participating in the league and hopefully, it will have the same impact on Pakistan hockey as HIL had on India,” Mahmood says.
World Cup round-up
Baker says he is satisfied with the team’s effort. The way Pakistan played, he felt, was just an indication of the team’s potential.
“We can do better. No one expected us to give such a tough fight to Germany and Malaysia but within the playing group, we aren’t surprised,” Mahmood says.