A deserving decoration

S. THYAGARAJAN

HISTORY has the habit of repeating itself, and it did on that warm, bright sunny afternoon at the Rot Weiss Koln when the power alignment underwent a modicum of change. Way back in 1995, on a cold night in Berlin, Germany triumphed over Australia via the tie-breaker in the Champions Trophy. On September 8, before a huge audience, the home team sunk into the abyss of defeat in the tie-breaker against its traditional rival, the Netherlands, in the final of the 24th edition of the Champions Trophy at Cologne.

The Dutch defeated the Germans twice in the competition - the first, an overwhelming 5-2 win in the league - and then in the final through the tie-breaker following a goalless contest after extra time. When Ronald Brouwer, easily the most outstanding of the Dutch frontline in the championship, flicked in the match winner with the contest tantalisingly placed at 2-2 in the tie-break, the joy of the Holland supporters - many of them had made a special journey from Amsterdam and nearby to witness the final - was quite manifest.

The victorious Dutch team with the Champions Trophy.-AP

The Dutch delight at Rot Weiss Koln put an end to an eventful edition of the Champions Trophy which, for the first time, featured three Asian outfits, an extraordinary India-Pakistan encounter after more than a year and a few thrilling moments. Why the Dutch deserved their victory more than anyone else was mainly because they improved match by match while the rest showed signs of decline as the event progressed.

It is no exaggeration to state that the voluble Joost Berlaart had the most balanced combination among the six teams on view. True, the team had an appalling first round match against India and was lucky to draw after Matthijs Brouwer slotted the equaliser almost synchronising with the hooter. But thereafter the Dutch went on a delightful spree. The 6-1 victory over the Aussies, who had a very poor run but managed to stay on course in the end, was a splendid effort. This encounter proved the striking prowess of Ronald Brouwer who netted three goals.

Brouwer's competence in the attack was complemented by the exquisite and somewhat unpronounced performance of the world class inside forward Teun di Nooijer and Piet Geeris. In the mid-field the experience and expertise of Erik Jazet and Jereon Delmee added to the solidity of the defence as was the striking force of the two sweepers, Taeke Taekema, and Bram Lomans, whose penalty corners caused an alarm to the goal-keepers. Taeke Taekema, at 22, was the cynosure of all eyes and emerged as the top scorer of the championship with seven goals. The assessment of the Dutch strength would be incomplete without the mention of the superb work under the bar by the seasoned Guus Vogels whose consistency of effort was worthy of emulation.

Though the Germans were understandably disappointed, they would be the first to concede their inability to peak in every match. On the contrary, they palpably struggled to fight their way through. They almost dropped two points to Pakistan in the opening tie until Bjorn Emmerling levelled a minute before the hooter, and were placed in a similar plight against the Indians till Christian Wein came up with the match-winner. In none of the matches did the Germans show their renown professional and proficient approach. And when the Dutch destroyed them, it not only shook their confidence but their unbeaten record in the competition, which stretched to nine consecutive matches in the Champions Trophy since 2001 at Rotterdam.

The failure of Oliver Domke and Sascha Reinelt to make a mark in the attack brought Germany a host of problems. Even the usually reliable Florian Kunz was anything but unbeatable in penalty corners. The two who really contributed to Germany staying in the race were Christian Wein, the son of the famous FIH coach and acadamecian, Horst Wein, and the hard working Matthaus Wittahaus. Now and then Timo Wess flashed into the picture. But a lot of credit should go to the goal-keeper Clemens Arnold, who was a picture of confidence. It was more the saves he effected than what the Germans scored that eventually gave the home team a berth in the final. And fittingly enough, he was awarded the prize as the best goal-keeper in the championship. It must be added that he was replaced by Christian Schulte for the tie-breaker.

Pakistan should be more than satisfied by the outcome and the bronze it won. Not only did it avenge the defeat suffered against an inspired India in the league but managed to come out of the odium suffered on account of the 2-7 reverse against New Zealand in the Commonwealth Games at Manchester. It was the little known Rehan Bhatt who slaughtered the Indians in the last quarter after the latter was on song with a 3-1 lead. These moments spoke more of the spirit than the skill that is often the killer of Indian hopes in any competition against the Pakistanis.

Skipper Mohammad Sarwar and Mohammad Nadeem along with Kashif Jawad impressed in the forward line but what sustained the team thoroughout was the excellent mid-field work by Mohammad Wassem and Mohammad Usman. The former, in particular, was outstanding in the second meeting. The much feared strikes by Sohail were limited, and the Indians, particularly the goal-keeper, Devesh Chauhan, displayed the strength to render him ineffective for the major part.

For the umpteenth time, it once again proved a case of so near yet so far for the Indians. But it must be recognised that India never had it so good in a high voltage competition as the Champions Trophy in recent years. There were defining moments when the team came close to pulling off victories against the super powers such as Germany and Holland, and beating Pakistan so convincingly in the first meeting and looked like repeating it for the bronze medal. A slip here and there, and the lack of fitness and fervour to defend the lead in the final minutes pushed India to defeat. Two victories (Pakistan and Australia), a draw (The Netherlands) and three defeats (against Germany, Korea and Pakistan) show the undulations in clear terms.

For a squad composed of a majority of the junior World cuppers, it may be reckoned as something positive but to overlook the deficiencies would be suicidal. One cannot disagree with the aggressive approach advocated by coach, Rajinder Singh, but this should be backed by a well-orchestrated defensive mechanism. This was found wanting as the tournament progressed. Admittedly, India was the only team that scored a few scintillating field goals involving Prabhjot Singh and Gagan Ajit Singh, who was the second top-scorer and the only forward with a tally of five. Veteran Dhanraj showed that age had not withered his skills as a schemer, dribbler and scorer. He was in his elements against the Pakistanis and many a coach, including Maurits Hendricks, hailed Dhanraj's show that Wednesday evening as the best seen in two years.

A tighter midfield and deep defence could have put India in a better light. Though Gill, Lakra and Ignace were hard working, not always were they seen in harmony. Viren Rasquinha impressed in every match he played as was Vikram Pillay during the brief appearances he was allowed. Dilip Tirkey really played a captain's role, exquisite in his interceptions and coming off with timely penalty corner hits. Notwithstanding the 100 per cent conversion of penalty strokes and a couple of charming flicks in penalty corners, Jugraj gave the impression of being vulnerable in one-to-one tackles.

Dinesh Nayak could have been used better in the last quarter of matches where India struggled to hold on to the advantage. Unfortunately, he was not even in the 16 for the second contest against Pakistan when the defence crumbled in the final minutes.

Goal-keeper Devesh Chauhan made a few outstanding saves but conceded some soft goals too making one wonder why the coach never even thought of giving Bhart Chetri an exposure when the bronze medal match was secure when playing Korea. This would have given Chettri a chance to show his mettle, which is nothing different from that of Devesh. Arjun Halappa was not allowed much time on the field to demonstrate his prowess, while Daljit Singh Dhillon, in poor form, was tested more than he deserved. In fact, his position in the team needs to be given a second look.

The embarrassment for Barry Dancer's Australian team finishing without a point in five matches can well be imagined. Even assuming the Aussies were not in full strength, the performance in the 24th edition should be forgotten as a bad dream. There was a real danger of Australia going out of the Champions Trophy for the first time in 25 years, but the team showed the fortitude and gumption to win against the Koreans in the deciding match for fifth and sixth places. The experience of skipper Paul Gaudoin and Adam Commens failed to goad the frontline work of Nathan Eglington and Mike McCann to make it more meaningful. Even in the main area of penalty corners, the Australians were pathetic.

For the second time in succession, the Koreans flopped in the Champions Trophy, taking the last spot. This was surprising considering the fact that Korea had fielded a strong team with Kang, Song and Yeo in the fray. While Kang proved his calibre as a striker with Hwang, the rest were never in the frame. The Korean performance oscillated from the brilliant to bad and never sailed on a smooth course that one noticed during the last World Cup at Kuala Lumpur.

Inevitably, the umpiring was in critical focus, and rightly so for a few rulings which had an impact on the outcome. The Germans genuinely felt that Bjorn Michel had scored the golden goal in the final against the Netherlands. It is a pity that umpiring becomes a matter of debate in almost every tournament and the FIH is quite alive to this and striving to enhance the quality which seems lacking in pace with the advancement in technique, tactics and speed with which the game is played today.

And finally, a look back at the championship would be incomplete without paying a tribute to the excellent work put in by the Deutescher Hockey Bund, and the two livewires behind the venture, Ms. Uschi Schmitz and Christoph Pluss.

SELDOM does an Indian get nominated as the Player of the Tournament in a senior level, prestigious event as the Champions Trophy. Not many eyebrows were raised when the panel conferred that honour on Dhanraj Pillay at the conclusion of the 24th edition at Cologne. While the trend looked favouring either Ronald Brouwer or Teun de Nooijer of the Netherlands, the choice of Dhanraj Pillay for the distinction was, in effect, a recognition of the improved performance of the Indians, whose narrow miss of a medal will be talked about for years to come.

Dhanraj Pillay, who was the 'Player of the Tournament' in the Champions Trophy, obliges autograph hunters.-PTI

The honour done to Dhanraj is perhaps more of a reflection of acknowledging the proficiency of a star whose constancy on the international scene is remarkably envious. From the bylanes of Kirkee in Pune to the heights of Olympics, World Cups and Champions Trophies, the life and times of 34-year-old Dhanraj Pillay is a fascinating saga of ups and downs. What has influenced the career of this doughty warrior is the determination to succeed at every stage and against many odds.

Dhanraj Pillay should not be measured by statistics. He has to be evaluated against the aesthetics of his approach, the stickwork, the body dodge, the feints and the astute passes and those classic touches which underline his efficiency. True, no other player in contemporary hockey has been capped more than the 320-odd times he has appeared for his country. He has stayed on in the international scene for about 13 years since debut at the Asia Cup in New Delhi in 1989. Dhanraj is always viewed as a player who thrills the spectators the world over as he did the multitude of viewers who watched on TV, the ace striker weaving circles around the Pakistani defence in the sensational match on September 4.

Born on July 16, 1968, Dhanraj Pillay, a Tamil speaking Puneite, hails from a family of hockey players. It is said he is a relative of the famous Marudavanam Pillay, who was equated with the then maestro Dhyan Chand, in the early thirties in Nagpur. Dhanraj and his brother Ramesh grew up in the hockey environs of Pune and Bombay (Mumbai). The sheer innate talent held the coaches' attention in Dhanraj, whose progress to the higher echelons of competitive hockey was only inevitable. The debut in the 1989 Asia Cup opened a new vista to Dhanraj Pillay's multi-faceted skills which rested on the ability of his ball control. In fact, many a time he was accused of overdoing the dribble, satiating his appetite even at the expense of his team.

Three Olympics (1992, 96, 2000), three World Cups (1990, 1994, 1998) and three Asian Games (1990, 1994, 1998) perhaps quantify the efficacy of Dhanraj Pillay's durability as a player. It is not easy to catalogue the other tournaments he had figured in for Bombay, his previous employer, Mahindra, the country and his current employer, Indian Airlines. It is but natural that Dhanraj should be elevated to heading the national team. Dhanraj would perhaps remember for ever his role as the captain in ushering India to the gold at the Asian Games in Bangkok in 1998 where he top-scored with 10 goals. But at the same time he would like to forget the trauma of leading the team at the World Cup in 1998. He also led the team in its first ever Commonwealth Games appearance at Kuala Lumpur in 1998.

What has internationalised Dhanraj Pillay and added tremendous touch of polish to his approach has been his exposure in the domestic leagues as guest player in England, Germany, France and Malaysia. Nothing deterred Dhanraj's determination to get on with the game despite the tiffs he had with the authority or the injuries that plagued him at certain points of his career. Known as the voluble fighter for the players' cause - he was even alleged to have revolted with the players on the eve of a Test series with Pakistan - Dhanraj always remains in focus, on and off the field.

When Dhanraj Pillay decides to hang his stick, which he contemplates after the Busan Asian Games, he has to be accorded a place among the pantheons of Indian hockey.