Recent socio-political relations between India and Pakistan had created an atmosphere for one of the most potentially hostile sporting clashes Asia had ever seen. Both countries are currently at loggerheads over increasing violence on the Line of Control (LoC), which is severely affecting day-to-day sporting ties – all matches between the two nations in a home/away format across all sports have been indefinitely suspended.
Hence, when the two countries faced off against each other in the Asian Champions hockey Trophy final in Kuantan, Malaysia, they were playing for much more than just the title of being the contintent's best squad.
Currently ranked sixth in the world, India headed into the encounter as firm favourites to lift the trophy. However, due to the volatile nature of this rivalry, even a lower-ranked Pakistan more often than not bring their A game to the table.
In fact, the group phase fixture mimicked today's scoreline of 3-2, with India being made to eke out a victory instead of convincingly lifting the title after a five-year long wait. But with more than just pride at stake, one particular incident involving Indian fullback Birendra Lakra, with just eight minutes left in the game, highlighted how sport can be used as a tool for reintegration of ties between the two countries.
Pakistan were on the attack – they had no other option because Nikkin Thimmaiah's cool and calm finish had given India the lead with less than 15% of the match remaining. Bilal Aleem received the ball at the edge of the box to dribble past two players and was looking to cross the ball, with three green shirts inside the box. However, the ball touched Lakra and went out for a long corner. Pakistan immediately appealed the referee's decision that the ball had hit Lakra's leg.
Before you hear what Lakra's next move was, think about the game's context for a moment. If India were to win this match, they would regain the title after five long years. At the last edition in Japan, India finished a lowly fifth, including an embarassing defeat at the hands of Pakistan. Moreover, they were now playing the same team that had brought out the infamous ‘middle-finger’ celebration during the FIH Champions Trophy two years ago.
Hence, with just 8 minutes to play, Lakra could've easily made Pakistan use up their last referral.
However, as the referee blew his whistle and stopped the game, the Pakistani camp was convinced that it was a penalty corner. The referee wasn't so sure, and he put his right hand on his ear piece to communicate with the review umpire. But Lakra came running up to him and said, “It is a penalty corner, please don't use up their last referral, your position was such that you might have missed it.”
The referee was amazed with Lakra's honesty and immediately instructed the reviewer to halt the checking process.
A frantic set of Pakistani players rushed toward the edge of the D, but not before patting Lakra on his back for his honesty. The eventual penalty corner would not yield a goal for Pakistan, but what stood out was the sportsmanship on display, during a match that could essentially affect their personal reputation back home.
Pakistan coach K M Junaid personally went and hugged Lakra, thanking him for the gesture. Each and every player of the Pakistan squad congratulated him for holding true to the most important virtue that sport teaches you – honesty.
Junaid said, “We have such a lack of exposure, we hardly play any hockey, but in a match which will eventually have such a massive implication both politically and sportingly, Lakra's gesture truly shows how both teams only care about one aspect – and that's playing the sport to the best of their abilities.”
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At the end of the night, India went home as Asian champions, but the real victor in all of this was humanity and the sport of hockey.