They called him one of India's greatest midfield generals on the hockey field. With three Olympics and as many World Cup participation, both as skipper and player, apart from a host of internationals, he has a Arjuna award to decorate them all. It was little wonder that Ajitpal Singh should have earned such an encomium.
"The ability at interceptions, intelligence to control the game and perfect positional play" are the three vital prerequisites of a good centre-half, said Ajitpal who had held that position with the grace and efficiency that matches his dignified personality.
At 38, Ajitpal, a Deputy Commandant with the Border Security Force, was not exactly young but that hardly reflected in his physical fitness for he was fit as a fiddle. The Palghat Nationals was the first he missed since he started playing for his State way back in 1966.
"I had to serve my unit for the National Police Games at Trivandrum and so could not make it to the Nationals", said Ajitpal. So though not a witness, he had nevertheless learnt about the happenings during the National—the umpiring, players' indiscipline etc. But little did he realise he would himself be in the midst of such a situation during the Police Games.
Mounting tension: It was the semifinal and BSF had just squeaked past CRPF with a solitary goal in a match which displayed little good hockey but more of frayed tempers. "It should not have happened, rather it should not have been allowed to happen", said Ajitpal wearing a scornful look. While he held no brief for indiscipline, he still felt much of it emanated through rank poor umpiring. "As a player I must say it is with great stress and strain that we play and when it is a needle match, the added tension is also there. A vital lapse here or there is as crucial as vital opportunity lost. The umpires controlling the game should realise that".
The cause: Ajitpal is frank that "umpiring in India is of very poor standards barring exceptions. Whether one likes it or not, it is a fact that interpretation of rules are totally different if not contradictory by umpires abroad and more often than not international tournaments are normally dominated by foreign umpires. When India loses in an international engagement, the blame immediately falls on umpiring. Little wonder this, for Indians are suited to the umpiring at home".
Clinics for umpires: It is necessary, Ajitpal felt, that the Indian Hockey Federation should send umpires to watch tournaments abroad to learn the interpretations of the rules. Besides best umpires from abroad could be invited to hold clinics here. Apart from all that, it was essential that more of young blood was introduced in umpiring preferably those who have had active hockey career. For only then would a player's temperament be looked at in the proper perspective.
All round weakness: Commenting on the present standard, he said: "Yes the situation is bad. In my days for each position there were at least three or four players competing with each other. So getting into the final eleven meant a big thing. Now, do we have a good substitute for a Zafar Iqbal or Merwyn Fernandes? Besides it is pointless now to try pinpointing the team's weakness. The weakness is all round because the game as such holds less attraction now”.
"The game has also caught up fast in the outside world. Australia and Germany, to name only two, are as skilled as the Indians". But rather than trying for a wholesale change in the Indian style of playing, Ajitpal felt India could do well by supplementing its game, with the tricks that the others have. It is here that Ajitpal felt the services of foreign coach could have been of help. "What is also essential," said Ajitpal "is to doing away with coaches who still talk of old stratagem. The need is to give pep to the game and win back the confidence, the game had held in the-public mind."
Did the change in surface affected India's game? Ajitpal felt to some extent it is true because playing had become very demanding. "On astro turf the team that has maximum possession of the ball dictates the play."
(This interview was first published in the Sportstar Magazine in 1985)
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