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|November 18, 1999||
Dhanraj holds the key to India's fortunes
The Asia Cup in Kuala Lumpur is what I will dwell on this time. Initially, India were offered the chance to play hosts, but the Indian Hockey Federation did not respond within the time-frame allotted and so forfeited the opportunity to stage the second most important tournament in the continent after the Asian Games.
I feel the IHF deliberately did not get its act together, mainly because it did not have the funds to stage the event. Since it did not want to look small in the eyes of the international hockey fraternity by saying so, it kept mum. Not responding to the FIH was the best way to get off the hook without losing face. Anyway, the hockey-loving public lost an opportunity to watch leading international teams play in our country.
In came Pakistan, prepared to conduct the event. The Pakistan Hockey Federation always capitalises on such opportune moments to make themselves look good in the eyes of the Federation International Hockey. However, it took General Pervez Musharraf's coup to put the lid on the PHF's aspirations. Initially, the PHF denied it was not in a condition to host the event, but with the other teams worried about the safety factor, the tournament seemed in jeopardy.
It was the competition committee (which has Asian Hockey Federation secretary Datuk Alagendra as one of its members) that was seen striving to find an amicable solution as member countries demanded a shift in venue in view of the developments in Pakistan. The committee, after much deliberations, suggested that the Asia Cup be shifted from Lahore and then left it to the AHF, headed by Sultan Azlan Shah, to take a final decision.
PHF secretary general Colonel Mudassar Asgar initially tried his best to convince the AHF that all was well and Pakistan was in a position to conduct the tournament without a hitch. He briefed the committee about the law and order situation in his country and was emphatic that the teams would be provided high security. However, with the teams still expressing doubts, ultimately Colonel Asgar officially presented a letter to the AHF saying the PHF would have difficulties in hosting the tournament.
The AHF president, after talking to FIH officials and delegates of other member countries, respected the wishes of the teams who were all in training and preparation. In the end, keeping in mind the time factor, logistics and the safety of the teams, the venue was shifted to Kuala Lumpur, with the dates of the tournament unchanged -- November 18 to 28.
Fortunately, Malaysia has the infrastructure to conduct such a competition. One must compliment the Malaysian Hockey Federation for its belief and courage to stage an event of this magnitude in so short a timeframe. It is also heartening to hear that the MHF was confident of roping in major sponsors for the event. Indeed, the experience of conducting the World Cup qualifiers and the Commonwealth Games has stood the Malaysians in good stead.
The Asia Cup was started 22 years ago. This is the first time that Malaysia will host the tournament. The last edition was played in Hiroshima in 1993, where a rampant South Korea thrashed Pakistan 6-0 in the final. Ten teams were to participate this time, but with Kazakhstan dropping out at the eleventh hour, only nine will be seen in action at the national hockey stadium in Bukit Jalil. Defending champion South Korea, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Japan, China, Bangladesh, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka.
The winner of the tournament will automatically qualify for the 2002 World Cup in Kuala Lumpur. The top four finishers will battle it out in the World Cup qualifiers. For the first time in the history of hockey, the World Cup will have 16 teams instead of the customary 12.
Another important aspect of this tournament is that Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan and South Korea will carefully analyse each other's strengths and weaknesses as they will play the Olympic qualifier in March 2000 in Osaka. Top drawer hockey is on the cards though one cannot rule out the possibility of some cloak and dagger stuff as the competition goes on.
In my opinion, South Korea and either Pakistan or India will contest the final. I say Korea for sure because they are the strongest of the lot. They have come into their own over the last year or so and have beaten most of the elite teams in the major tournaments they have played. The teams they defeated include Germany, Holland, Pakistan and Spain. And though India beat them at the Asian Games, I will not hesitate to bill them as the favourites in Kuala Lumpur.
Pakistan are in the process of rebuilding its team. Nevertheless, the Pakistanis will be the ones to watch. They are banking on a bunch of youthful and skilful forwards and hope that their trump card, penalty-corner exponent Sohail Abbas, gets his act together. Sohail, who was selected for the World XI, has been in tremendous form. After a stint with a Dutch club, his confidence has gotten better.
And what about India? Mercurial forward Dhanraj Pillay holds the key to their fortunes. There is no doubt he can change the complexion of any match. Having been in the cold for around ten months, he is raring to go and prove his detractors wrong. If he can strike a rapport with Baljit Dhillon, India's most powerful flicker who was also a member of the World XI, and Baljit Saini, then goal-scoring, which has been the bane of our hockey, will not be a problem for India.
Mail Prem Panicker
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