An India-Pakistan fixture, regardless of the sport and the venue, is always a big attraction -- both for the local crowd as well as broadcasters. Hence it is needless to say that today's India versus Pakistan fixture of the Hero Asia Cup in Dhaka is the centre of attention of the group stages of this tenth edition of this continental competition.
Aside from the political rivalry, the history of the rivalry between the two hockey teams goes long back in history. India's absolute dominance in hockey was first broken by Pakistan in the Rome Olympics in 1960 and the green shirts went on to win the title two more times. However, it is the World Cup of hockey, incepted in 1971 and the Champions Trophy incepted in 1978, which saw Pakistan's rise as hockey's superpower while Indian hockey started to decline.
Pakistan have won the World Cup and the Champions Trophy three times each while India have only managed a single World Cup title. But those were more than two decades ago, and since then, European teams and Australia have taken a stranglehold on the game as the subcontinent's hockey subsided.
However, with the introduction of franchise leagues and all the money poured into the game, Indian hockey is seeing a resurgence in recent times and they came into this tournament as the top-ranked side, currently sixth in the world rankings. Pakistan, on the other hand, are ranked 14th in the world.
The recent meetings between the two sides also tell a story of India's dominance. The Indians won, and by big margins, in their last five meetings.
Having already confirmed their Super 4s berth following two convincing wins, India will be full of confidence when they take their archrivals in Pool A's final fixture at the Maulana Bhasani Hockey Stadium at 5:30pm.
India coach Sjoerd Marijne, who took charge of the side recently, said he was focusing only on his own team ahead of the marquee clash. "For me it's just another match and we have approached it just like another match. We are focusing on our development," the Dutchman said at the pre-match press briefing.
After thrashing Japan 5-1 in the opening match of the competition, India went on to hand Bangladesh a 7-0 mauling to confirm the last-four berth. Pakistan, on the other hand, will have a whole lot to improve upon. Despite a 7-0 win against Bangladesh, the three-time champions were far from convincing, and they were found out in a 2-2 draw in their second match. A draw or a small-margin of victory would be enough for the green shirts to seal a Super 4s berth, but they would have to improve considerably if they are to mount a challenge against their bitter rivals.
Pakistan skipper Mohammad Irfan knows the task at hand is difficult. "Tomorrow we have to play really well as it's a match between India and Pakistan," Irfan said. "We didn't play well against Japan. We saw the videos of the match and pointed out what went wrong and we will be working hard to rectify those mistakes. There is no room for relaxation against India."
HOSTS FACE RESURGENT JAPAN
Meanwhile, hosts Bangladesh will be looking to salvage some pride when they play their final group-phase match against Japan at 3:00pm today. Coming into the match on the back of consecutive seven-goal defeats, the hosts will have it all to do against a speedy Japan side if they are to avoid finishing bottom in the group.
The hosts will need to beat Japan, who have one point from two matches, to avoid the bottom position. However, a draw against the Japanese will be considered some redemption as the bottom two teams will eventually battle for the place deciding matches (5th to 8th).
"Japan are a good team and they played well against Pakistan. If we take the field with a negative mindset, then we will have no chance against them. Our midfield is our weak-link and there are a couple of fitness issues too. However, if the players can implement the gameplan, then we can do well," hoped Bangladesh coach Mahbub Harun after running his charges through an hour's practice session yesterday morning.