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May 20, 2000


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Happy days are here again

Cedric D'Souza

I would like to apologize for not writing for quite sometime, the reason being that I was away on holiday with my family as well as on work, where free time was at a premium. Now that is over with, let us get down to brass tacks.

The last couple of months have been good for Indian hockey. The senior team won the tournament at Perth, and our junior team finished runners-up to Korea in the Junior Asia Cup in Malaysia.

Let me talk about the victory in Australia. The IHF's policy of grooming youth seems to have paid off. With time, these youngsters can only get better as they gain valuable experience. Apart from Dhanraj Pillay, it is quite a young side. The other players with some sort of experience are Mohammad Riaz, Ramandeep Singh, Baljeet Dhillon, Dilip Tirkey, Baljeet Siani, who all did duty at the 1996 Olympics. Siani, though, I must add here, was forced to return following an injury. The rest of the players have been in and out of the team over the last four years, and though they are comparatively younger and inexperienced than the abovementioned, the blend seems to be just right.

Coached by Vasudevan Bhaskaran, and his assistant Harinder Singh, the boys had a training camp in Australia for a fortnight and worked hard on their fitness and other deficiencies. Although having a camp outside Indian shores is an expensive proposition, there is method in this madness, and I for one fully endorse it. I can't but help remember the time when we had a 10-day camp in London in 1996 and how fruitful/beneficial the training was for team development. The rewards of this type of a camp are manifold - the key issues being that the team binds itself together, the players are totally focused and have no other distractions - - hockey sans any politics being the main purpose. Apart from this, as they have already been selected there is no insecurity and the players are able to really give off their best.

Let us look at the team's performance in its entirety during both legs of the Australian tour, in Sydney and Perth.

The boys played three matches in Sydney, won 1- - against South Africa 3-2, and lost the other two - - 2-0 to Germany and 3-2 to Australia.

One must note that the margins of victory were marginal and the matches could have gone either way. If anything, it proved that our team matched their renowned counterparts in fitness and skill.

At Perth, the story read:. India versus Australia - - won one 2-1; versus Germany - - won 2-1; versus South Africa - - won 3-0. Our team seemed to have learnt from their previous defeats and came up with a performance that surely must have sent a clear message to the rest of the world - - that India will be a good medal prospect at the Sydney Olympics.

Indeed, our players and coaches deserve a pat on the back for having given Indian hockey something to smile about in many, many years. In my opinion, this team will form the nucleus of the teams for the few years. In Gagan Ajit, Deepak Thakur, Daljit Dhillon, S.S Gill, Dinesh Nayak, Dilip Tirkey, goalkeeper Jude Menezes and Anwar Khan India have match-winners for the future. It would be unfair not to praise the leadership qualities of skipper Ramandeep Singh, whose cool temperament and man-management skills went a long way in bringing out the best of the players. One only hopes that the team management and the IHF maintain the momentum and makes sure that mistakes identified during this tour are analyzed and rectified well before the big one in September.

The atmosphere at the Curtin University campus was carnival-like, with skydivers and drumbeaters adding to the festivity. The game itself was befitting a final, with veteran Dhanraj Pillay playing a stellar role by scoring two goals with the panache and flourish that he is well-known for. The first was an Argentine reverse hit that Christopher Rietz in the German goal knew little about. His second goal was the icing on the cake, as he wove through the German defense and reverse flicked, with just 24 seconds left, to the joy of the Indian supporters who had turned out in great numbers. It was the first tournament India won since the 1995 Azlan Shah tournament, when we beat Germany in the final. It must be mentioned here that Bhaskaran was also in charge then.

In recent months, Bhaskaran has been getting a lot of flak from all quarters, and this victory hopefully will silence his critics and give him due credit.

Here are a few observations of the final, that took me by surprise:

1. Germany's failure to capitalize on the India's defensive mistakes and loss of possession, especially in the first half;

2. After going one-up and with two minutes to go, India should have closed out the door and not permitted Germany a look at our goal. Germany drew level in the last two minutes;

3. It is totally uncharacteristic of Germany to allow the opposition to score a goal in the last 30 seconds. And it just goes to prove that all of us are mortal and even tactical teams like Germany can succumb to pressure.

4. India basically won the game using Germany's tactics of closing down the defense and playing on the break - counterattacks (especially in the second half).

After the triumph, Bhaskaran said: "This win means that our Olympic campaign is well on track. This will be a morale booster for the boys when they go back to resume their pre- Sydney preparations." Sure, I could not agree with him more.

Hard on the heels of the Aussie victory, our junior team, coached by C.R. Kumar went to Malaysia to participate in the junior Asia Cup. The team, led by skipper Lazarus Barla, had an array of international players, like Divesh Chauhan, Gagan Ajit Singh, Deepak Thakur, Prabhjot Singh and Radhakrishnan. Thus, when they left Indian shores, there was no doubt in my mind that we would do well and probably go the whole hog. And rightly so. They mauled all before them, but Korea in the final, scoring 60 odd goals, conceding just a paltry few in the pool stages.

I firmly believe that this junior team has what it takes to be world beaters. They only have to learn to be consistent, be able to shake off markers, create space and capitalize on the chances that they create. We also must learn to soak pressure like the rest of the world does and play on the break. In short we need to learn to defend at all times.

Another key area is fitness, which has to be improved tremendously. If you look back on the final of the junior Asia Cup, India lost because they were unable to produce that extra burst of energy in the dying moments. The Koreans had it and scored.

With both the junior and senior teams invited for the Olympics preparation camp, one hopes that the coaches give due attention to these shortcomings. Because modern hockey is all about fitness and a strong game plan. And Indian hockey needs a dose of modernity to regain the glory of yore.

Cedric D'Souza

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