THOSE who do not follow local football in the last five years can be forgiven for not knowing the names of the Sarawak players.
The only familiar name on the list, supplied by the Football Association Of Sarawak (FAS), is Abang Mohd Za’afari Abang Othman. He played during the time of Abdul Jalil Ramlee, Mohd Ali Sapiee and Roslan Ismail under Alan Vest.
Presently, the only big name in Sarawak team is probably Bobby Gonzales, a Sabahan who has played for Malaysia at all levels of junior football – Under-15, Under-18 and Under-23 – but not in the senior team. Bobby who scored 16 goals for Sarawak so far this season knows he will be a marked man in the Malaysia Cup. Playing as a lone striker, he is very fortunate to have four supporting midfielders who gel very well with him. Bobby who hails from Beaufort, started playing for his home state in 2003 at only 18 years old.
He was Sabah’s top scorer for the 2007-8 season before migrating to Brunei DPMM FC and KL Plus FC. Bobby first appeared for Sarawak in 2005 in a star-studded squad that also included Malaysia’s top striker, Safee Saili, under coach Abdul Jalil Ramli.
Playing on the left flank in midfield for the Crocs is Ashri Chu Chu who comes from Kampung Luagan near Sundar in Lawas. This 20-year-old talented left-footer is the most reliable among the young players in the squad, having won the coach’s trust for a regular place in the first eleven. Ashri is known for his long-range attempts that often caught the opposing custodian napping. He has six goals to his credit so far this season and is targeting at least two goals in the Malaysia Cup. On the right flank is team captain Zamri Morshidi who resides in Kampung Telaga Air, a fishing village well known among the local sports anglers.
Zamri is a man of a few words off the field but transforms into a much feared player when leading his charges on the pitch. He scores regularly and is the linkman for Ashri and Bobby with his great footwork and darting runs.
Sarawak’s engine room is normally manned by Benedict Martin. I have not heard about this guy before since he is new to the local football scene. The reason is very simple. Benedict played in peninsular Malaysia before returning home recently.
He is a product of Sekolah Sukan Bukit Jalil, having once played for Selangor and Perak, and was endorsed by Nike. Yes, you read it right. He was endorsed by Nike while playing for Perak. Another midfield dynamo who normally controls Sarawak’s tempo of play is veteran Wong Sai Kong, a versatile player who can fit into any position.
The former national player first played for the Crocs under Abdul Jalil Ramlee. Also fighting for a place is Abang Mohd Za’afari. Just like Benedict and Wong, Za’afari is a quick-thinking mid-fielder capable of orchestrating attacks and scoring goals. He was not fielded when Sarawak played Kuching Selection on Tuesday but that does not mean he is going to warm the bench throughout the Crocs’ Malaysia Cup campaign.
A quick chat with assistant coach Farhan Abdullah @ Anai revealed the five regular defenders as Mazwandi Zekeria, Mohd Dzulazlan Ibrahim, Mohd Hairol Moktar, Sahran Abd Samad and Mohd Shahrol Saperi. Against Kuching, Mazwandi showed great maturity for a young player, making a few dangerous breaks from the left side of the field. At a toss of coin, he switched role to a winger, dribbling past four Kuching players but was unfortunate to have shot wide after doing a “one-two” with Zamri Morshidi. Anai told me Mazwandi was only 17 years old when he first played for Sarawak in Sukma under him in 2006. He is still only 22 now.
The boy has good potential and is lucky to be playing under a tactically-savvy coach like Robert Alberts, according to Anai.
On the right, defender Dzulazlan Ibrahim is a no-nonsense hard tackler who constantly shackled the attackers in the match against Kuching Selection.
His fitness level during the game was superb, running almost non-stop in stark contrast to the opposing side’s need to regularly fall back on the subs.
Kuching Selection played all their 25 players whereas the Crocs stuck mostly with their first eleven, making just three changes to test their playing formation. Kuching Selection’s advantage of having fresh legs (through substitutions) did the test the tired Sarawak defence line.
But it was all for the best because that’s the kind of pressure the Crocs have to get used to and there will be plenty of it against stronger opponents like Kelantan, for instance.
Overall, the Crocs showed they could play against 25 players (on rotation) in one game – a clear indication of their physical and mental readiness.
What makes the Sarawak back line interesting is that some of the defenders are actually skilful enough to double up as attacking mid-fielders and strikers. Mohd Shahrol Saperi, for example, can play as striker and attacking midfielder.
However, Alberts is using him as a central defender together with Mohd Hairol Moktar and Sahran Abdul Samad.
Sarawak have a safe pair of hands between the posts in Aidil Mohd from Mukah. He has very good reflects and against Kuching Selection, saved a penalty kick to give the Crocs a clean slate.
Absorb and attack
The five defenders will form the backbone of “Sarawak’s patience” football, predicated on absorbing attacks and mounting counterattacks whenever there is a chance. The five-defender formation should be able to contain teams that adopt conventional attacking football.
I’m sure the Kelantan scouts and coach M Karathu are fully aware of this after spying on Sarawak’s friendly matches recently.
One must remember Kelantan is parading National top striker Mohd Norshahrul Idlan and has signed two Pahang strikers Azamuddin Akil and R Surendran for their Malaysia Cup defence.
Karathu’s boys whipped Kuala Lumpur 5-0, Police 2-0 and Selangor 1-0 in their build-up matches. In fact, against Police, Kelantan was fielding only reserve players. New signings The Crocs’ new signing Chun Keng Hong, a central defender, is still nursing an injury he picked up in the friendly against Negeri Sembilan.
The injury is not very serious and Chun is expected to be fully fit for the cruncher against kelantan. The other new signing Jaganathan who played back-up striker against Kuching Selection, was a livewire from the first whistle. He was everywhere, initiating attacks and holding back when Sarawak came under attack.
Jaganathan is already feeling at home in Sarawak and has very good tactical understanding with top striker Bobby Gonzales. He said he had no problems mixing with the other players and is confident the team can make the second round.
What makes this Sarawak team all the more interesting is the coach’s tendency to deploy his super sub in the final 15 minutes. And in a tournament like the Malaysia Cup, many coaches are praying to have a player like striker Khairul Azahar Eidros, brought in for the Crocs from Muar FC. This big forward bears a great resemblance to John Hunter, the stocky Aussie striker who played for Sarawak under Vest.
The national coach must seriously heed Khairul’s ability to influence the outcome of a game when it really matters. Despite his burly physique, he can bulldoze into the defence, turning and twisting with amazing footwork before slamming home.
Many hardcore fans are hurt by the ‘budak belasahan’ (whipping boy) tag used by some local TV pundits to describe the Sarawak team. It is inevitable because the present state team is largely unknown. Furthermore, the Crocs have been in the doldrums for five seasons.