A blend of youth and experience

Now that a berth is ensured for the World Cup in 2006, all the efforts should be geared to earn a spot for the Athens Olympics next year, from the qualifier at Madrid in March.

S. THYAGARAJAN

Kuala Lumpur 1975: India wins the World Cup for the first time.

Kuala Lumpur 2003: India triumphs for the first time in the Asia Cup.

The contrast of these two events, separated by over a quarter of a century, shows the revolution that has swept the world of hockey in the last millennium.

The jubilant Indian team which won the Asia Cup.-AP

As the nation rejoices in the aftermath of a memorable maiden victory in the Asia Cup competition, it is interesting to look back at the sequence of events that transformed the character of competitive hockey, its basic approach, structure, and, eventually, the shuffle in the power alignment.

The hegemony of the sub-continent disintegrated against the vast mosaic of new technique, tactics and technology engineered by the extraordinary ingenuity and the in-depth analysis of the sophisticated coaches in Germany, Holland and Australia in the mid-Seventies. Adding to the woes of the Asians was the introduction of the synthetic pitches since 1976, that made hockey a different ball game altogether.

In the fast changing scenario, India plumbed the depth of despair, touching the nadir in the 1986 World Cup, raising grave misgivings about the future. India nearly missed the Olympic berth to Barcelona in 1992. It managed to get there owing to a chain of other events in the qualifier at Auckland. In a nutshell, after that glorious moment, when Ashok Kumar slotted in the match-winner in 1975 World Cup, India failed to achieve anything of significance on the world stage for over 25 years, if one were to cast aside the gold medal in the truncated Moscow Games in 1980 as insignificant.

Not only did India was found wanting in adapting to the new techniques, which Pakistan imbibed with out much loss of time and courted success in the 1984 Olympiad in Los Angeles and in the 1994 World Cup at Sydney. But it suffered from want of efficient administration, responsive enough to arrest the decline and shift gears into the realm of professionalism.

Coming to Indian hockey, from Balkishen Singh to Zafar Iqbal to Kaushik, down to Baskaran and Cedric D'Souza, the coaches came and left causing annoyance all-round. Every remedy attempted appeared to be adding more to the prevailing chaos. The last World Cup, ironically enough, again in Kuala Lumpur, witnessed the unprecedented drama of sacking the coach midway through the championship, lowering the image of the country.

One heartening feature amidst all the unfortunate developments was the endeavour of the administration to place unshakable faith in the junior programme. When K. P. S. Gill took charge as President of Indian Hockey Federation in 1994, he sought a period of eight-year programme to produce results. The success of that programme reflected with the Indian team's triumph in the Junior World Cup at Hobart in 2001. And the man who guided the stars to this stage was the former Olympian and penalty corner striker, Rajinder Singh.

When Cedric was eased out, Rajinder Singh, basking on the victory as junior coach, secured the plum post of the chief coach for the senior team. Claiming that a lot of negative aspects have crept into the approach of the team because of the previous coaches, Rajinder Singh shaped up the squad emphasising on the virtues of attacking play. Success was limited in the initial phase as the humiliation suffered against Australia in the four-nation event at Melbourne in 2002 testified.

Progressively, the juniors, who graduated into the national team for major competitions, gave Indian hockey a new dawn this year. Initially, the build up programme suffered a setback when the Government instructed the team to pull out of the Azlan Shah tournament in March as retaliation to the maltreatment meted out to the Indian software professionals by the police in Malaysia.

Actually, signs of India making the right path surfaced during the 2002 Champions Trophy. The manner in which it confronted the challenges from Holland and Germany, and more so, by the extraordinary performance against Pakistan, winning 3-2, showed the team's progress. India missed the medal within the next 48 hours going down to Pakistan again 3-4 in the final minutes. But the fragrance continued to the Busan Asiad where India won in a dramatic finish orchestrated by Gagan Ajit Singh in the last minute.

Many did not miss the improved showing, and India, the experts acknowledged, was on the throes of resurgence. As many as 13 boys who constituted the core of the Junior World Cup winning team showed signs of maturing in the senior combination, strengthened by the seasoned veterans like Dhanraj Pillay, Dilip Tirkey, Baljit Singh Saini and Baljit Singh Dhillon. Success was at hand, and it emerged during the twin three-nation tournaments this year at Perth and Sydney, where the home team, Australia, was conquered, after a win against Pakistan in Perth. This was followed by a trophy triumph in the four-nation Masters at Hamburg. The team then went for the Champions Trophy against great expectations. After an excellent start against the Dutch, the team struggled to shore up confidence, but recorded a superlative 7-4 victory against Pakistan only to lose the bronze, to the same team.

The so-near-yet-so-far syndrome in successive events frustrated many. But it was clear as crystal that somewhere the team is bound to cross the Rubicon. And it occurred at Kuala Lumpur where the sequence was reversed. India lost the Pool match to Pakistan 2-4, but won by the same margin where it mattered most, in the final, after a dramatic win against Korea. Not since the Asian Games at Bangkok, has India won against the Koreans in a competition.

Quite predictably, the victory sequence and the brand of hockey displayed attracted more media attention, especially the electronic, which purveyed to the vast multitude of viewers the pulsating moments on the small screen direct from the venue. More importantly, the IHF succeeded roping in Sahara as the chief sponsor to give the players the much-needed financial incentive.

Today, India probably has the most balanced blend of youth and experience, though it misses the service of a world class striker in Jugraj Singh, following a car accident in the first week of September. It was emotionally fulfilling to see the players making a beeline to the hospital in Delhi to console and dedicate the victory to this gallant warrior.

It is easy to imagine what a feeling it will be for a player like Dhanraj Pillay who is on the national scene since 1989. It is indisputable that he symbolises today the energy, expertise and efficiency of Indian hockey, commanding the attention of one and all. Supremely gifted, Dhanraj raises an element of fear in the rival defence, which invariably goes into a state of alarm whenever he slithers like a snake on grass towards the goal. As the skipper and as the acknowledged star of the squad, he is the cynosure always, which, however, is proving not to be a blessing. The spat with coach Rajinder Singh in Chennai portrayed the bad spot to the mood of celebration. One hopes this is forgotten as an aberration, and the leadership of the Indian Hockey Federation would do well to sort out quickly, if there is a divergence of opinion between them on major issues.

Now that a berth is ensured for the World Cup in 2006, all the efforts should be geared to earn a spot for the Athens Olympics next year, from the qualifier at Madrid in March. And there lies the litmus test for Indian hockey.