Pakistan head coach Muhammad Saqlain on Wednesday admitted that India are ahead of his side in terms of preparations but promised to surprise the hosts in the Asian Champions Trophy hockey match-up between the arch-rivals on August 9.
"Definitely, preparation-wise India is ahead since it has been playing of late and is coming off a stint in Europe, whereas we have arrived right from our homes. It is the same even in cricket," Saqlain said during a media interaction.
"We want to play more matches against India that would be beneficial for both sides. Obviously, India is at an advantage here in terms of fitness. But we also prepare in the same hot weather conditions, and we will surprise them when we meet."
Pakistan have not played any competitive match this year, having missed out on participating in the FIH World Cup in India earlier this year. However, Saqlain feels that they have had adequate preparations all these times, especially in the last three months.
"We have been preparing for the last three months, and we have focused on improving our structure. We play attacking hockey. Physically, we might be lagging, but we are number one in terms of attack."
While many teams have expressed their apprehensions about the scheduling of the ACT before the all-important Olympic qualifier Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, next month, Saqlain branded this tournament as a "full-dress rehearsal" of the continental multi-sport event.
"I believe it's a full-dress rehearsal before the Asian Games. I credit FIH for having done so, as even if you make mistakes in this competition, you can immediately rectify them before a massive event like the Asian Games," said Saqlain.
The Pakistan team is currently ranked 16th but Saqlain believes that it is in a gradual process of improvement and needs time to become a major powerhouse again.
"Be it any sport, there is a steady process to make things better. You need to have a clear time frame for it. From my point of view, you need at least 18 months for a team to be competitive enough in Olympics or World Cup. And I hope Pakistan Hockey Federation supports us to the fullest," he said.
"We are already a champion (in the ACT). We have also won championships in the Olympics and the World Cup. Still, to date, Pakistan has an advantage over India in hockey and cricket (in winning more matches).
"As far as our low ranking is concerned, it is mainly because we did not participate in the Pro League. We are even capable of outplaying Australia. We do possess the skills, but you need to invest, especially in the young players."
Saqlain was also supportive of the new penalty corner rule, saying it puts Pakistan and India in an advantageous position.
"In the new penalty corner rule, Pakistan and India have an advantage compared to the Europeans since the shot specialists and goalkeepers of the latter are physically stronger than us. If the ball stops in the 23rd yard, there is no variation. And we generally play well in the indirect gameplay."
Captain Umar Bhutta said while his players usually get to meet the Indians during such tournaments, social media has been a medium to connect with them.
"We have not normally played together too much. I last met some of the Indian players during the Commonwealth Games and the last ACT. Also, with the social media being so vibrant, it is not difficult to contact each other (the Indian players)," he said.
Speaking about his role in the side, Bhutta told PTI: "There is extra responsibility as a skipper. Also, since the team is quite young, I have to get the team together and motivate the players.
"So, hopefully, I can motivate them enough to perform to the fullest."
Asked if there was any extra pressure on the side to qualify directly to the 2024 Paris Olympics next year by winning gold in the Asian Games, he replied in the negative.
"I don't think so. If we don't qualify for the World Cup, of course, it's sad, since we lose out on playing matches, which in turn affects our rankings.
"All we need to think about is performing on a match-by-match basis. If we can perform, we qualify for the Olympics and playing the matches there would allow us to better our rankings and improve the quality of our hockey.
"Even India won an Olympic medal after 40 years. It's a long process. So, hopefully, we can put on a good show here and in Asian Games, and fight for a medal in Paris next year," he said.