Murugappa Gold Cup: Railways the highlight of group round

The presence of seven members of the Indian team that participated in the Olympics has infused life in the MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup. But at the end of the group stage, Indian Railways, a team that has trained together for a reasonable period of time, has made the most impact.

Affan Yousuf (right), one of the architects of Indian Railways' impressive run, in tussle with Jasbir Singh of ONGC on Tuesday.   -  M. Vedhan

The participation of seven Rio Olympians has infused energy and enthusiasm into proceedings at the 90th All-India MCC-Murugappa Gold Cup hockey tournament. Especially at a time when domestic hockey across the country is struggling to find sponsors and lure spectators to the stadium.

Hockey India’s decision not to release the top players from the camp in the build-up to Rio Olympics for the 89th edition of the event here didn’t go down well with a few former Olympians who criticised the board’s policy. With the Olympics over, the stars have assembled and the biggest beneficiaries have been the youngsters who are playing alongside and against the stars.

As Mohd. Riaz, coach of the Tamil Nadu team, observed the other day: “It was a sight to see a young Veera Thamizhan (TN) dribble past International Raghunath (IOC). That made my day.”

At the end of group matches, it is not the team with big names that has made everyone take notice, but a team that has trained together for a reasonable period of time. Indian Railways has really stood out with an impressive performance in a tough group that had Army XI, Punjab & Sind Bank and ONGC.

First, it defeated Army XI in an emphatic manner. After the loss to Punjab & Sind Bank, Railways regrouped quickly to beat Karnataka (8-2) and ONGC (7-2) by huge margins. The architects of the wins have been forwards Talwinder Singh and Affan Yousuf backed by a relatively solid defence. Of the three penalty corner specialists in the team, Amit Rohidas has stood out.

Fresh start

R. Suresh Babu, an astute Indian Railways coach, will know that the performance in the group will count for nothing when it takes on BPCL in the semifinals on Saturday.

Under the guidance of coach Sandeep Sangwan, who has worked with Roelant Oltmans (head coach of Indian men's team), ONGC has managed to stay afloat. In a must-win match against Army XI, it pulled off a victory at the last second off a penalty corner. The team will rely on Diwaker Ram to provide breakthroughs in penalty corners. Most importantly, its forwards will have to take their chances.

Against defending champion Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) in a last four clash, ONGC will have to ensure that it doesn’t concede too many penalty corners and give Raghunath an advantage, as Sangwan noted the other day.

Tushar Khandekar of BPCL, in his role as a forward, has done well in providing vital assists, too. He has used his rich experience of working with the various foreign coaches of the Indian team wisely. Against an in-form Railways, his vision and skills will prove to be crucial.