EVENTFUL in every sense of the term, the Silver Jubilee edition of the Champions Trophy, inarguably the most prestigious annual competition in the agenda of the International Hockey Federation, passed beyond the rim of the sylvan settings of the Wagener Stadium on August 24 into the recesses of history.S. THYAGARAJAN
EVENTFUL in every sense of the term, the Silver Jubilee edition of the Champions Trophy, inarguably the most prestigious annual competition in the agenda of the International Hockey Federation, passed beyond the rim of the sylvan settings of the Wagener Stadium on August 24 into the recesses of history. There was a carnival atmosphere too, heightened by the presence of colourful tents and by another Dutch triumph, the seventh to be exact, in the championships.
The nine-day championship showcased the skill, style, systematisation and, above all, the synchornisation of the new dynamics and dimension of competitive hockey as never before, giving us a view of the expanding frontiers of excellence. No team symbolised these aspects more convincingly than Holland, its only blot being the 62 minutes on the opening day when it was totally subjugated by India. At that point, none would have wagered on Holland taking the trophy again after Cologne last year.
But as the event wore on, the Dutchmen delighed the audience with a touch of professional efficiency in every segment of the game to record a spectacular final win against the Aussies. For a coach like the effusive Joost Bellaart handling a bunch as talented and seasoned as the Dutch should itself offer a tremendous measure of satisfaction and fulfilment. The players responded to the coach's demands and every strategic manoeuvre was put into action.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Dutch were troubled by the sub-continental style. India definitely gave them a nightmare, leading 3-0 till the Dutch recovered dramatically to score four goals in eight minutes. The Dutch won wholly on account of the poor defensive tactics by the Indians. Pakistan gave them a tough time, too and the team had to settle for a draw. The Dutch, however, scored as many as 23 goals in the league and four more in the final, averaging more than four goals per match.
Every team has a sheet-anchor. For the Dutch it was the compactly built Teun di Nooijer. There is no yardstick to measuring who among the contemporary stars is the best. But there is a definite consensus among observers that di Nooijer has the credentials to be the outstanding player in the world. It was a fitting tribute to his enchanting expertise, efficiency and enterprise that he was voted as the Player of the Tournament. Classic indeed was his goal in the final against the Aussies that clearly turned the tide in favour of the Dutch who won 4-2 in the end after Australia came back strongly, levelling twice in the match.
Di Nooijer's prowess lay in trapping the ball and making it roll around the rival defence. So effortless was he in his runs that the defences were palpably alarmed when Di Nooijer had the ball. Another aspect of Nooijer's approach was the way he passed the ball to the best placed attacker, be it Ronald Brouwer, Karel Klaver or Matthijs Brouwer. When it came to deflections inside the circle, Di Nooijer was confidence personified. Invariably, the free hits by skipper Delmee or mid-fielder Piet Geeris, were directed goalwards by Di Nooijer. In the deep defence, Taeke Takema was immaculate in hitting low penalty corners as was the more seasoned Bram Lomans. In Guus Vogels, the team had an excellent goalkeeper, unafraid to come in the way of lethal penalty corner hits. Indisputably, he was the best goalkeeper in the championship.
The Aussies oscillated between the brilliant and the bad, bright in patches, but inconsistent sometimes. That was largely on account of the poor workout in the midfield. Neither the skipper, Paul Gaudoin, nor his midfield compatriot, Brent Livermore, was anywhere near the calibre expected of them. It was the hard work of Troy Elder in the back zone that added an element of vibrancy to the frontline in which Craig Victory and Michael McCann caused a fair amount of threat to the rival goal. The youthful Grant Schubert enhanced the sharpness of the attack as did Nathan Eglington. The ligament injury to Jaime Dwyer — who could not be fielded for the majority of the matches — was a serious handicap for the Aussies. But the area in which the Aussies failed to live up to was penalty corners. Troy Elder shot only two in the tournament.
Actually, the Aussies should consider themselves lucky to make the title fight. This came about when India scored an extraordinary 7-4 victory over Pakistan. And that outcome pushed Pakistan out of the reckoning for a final spot, but opened a way for the Aussies, who were playing Argentina. And sure enough, the Aussies hammered as many as eight goals as though to return the compliment and help India come back into medal contention. Such twists on the penultimate day brought India and Pakistan to clash again within 48 hours for the bronze medal.
The struggle that Pakistan had to keep up its lead margins in the early matches left many wondering whether the team was well prepared. Leading 3-2 it drew 4-4 against Australia, but recovered from a 1-4 deficit to score a big 6-5 win against Argentina and then held Netherlands 2-2. An evaluation would show a great deal of inconsistency. Though the trump card was Sohail Abbas in penalty corners, it was the good work of Tashif Jawaad in crucial moments and Rehan Bhatt, who scored the match-winner against India for the bronze medal, that kept Paksitan flying. In the midfield, Wassem was a tower of strength, but the same cannot be said of Sohail and Ali Raza, the defenders.
Pakistan scored 25 goals and conceded 24 in the tournament. Yet the bronze gave the team a considerable amount of consolation for having missed the final and that too because of the totally humiliating defeat against the Indians.
Ecstasy and agony are becoming a part and parcel of India in major events. It is still a mystery to many why the team, so talented in individual excellence as to match the best, is so inconsistent that its fortunes are unpredictable. When leading 3-0 against the Dutch, the defending champion, in the opening match, the Indians were like champions. The penalty corner by Jugraj Singh and the two goals by Deepak Thakur were classic efforts, which clearly suggested that Sydney and Hamburg were no mere illusions of strength. But for no palpable reason the team lost its focus, indulged in voluble protests against the England umpire Stephen Brooks — who, anyway had no place in an event like the Champions Trophy — and paid a heavy price. Dhanraj had a yellow and Dilip Tirkey sustained a muscle cramp, leaving the defence wide open for the Dutch to hit back. The tragedy, however, was the warning issued to the team by the FIH top brass and the Tournament Director.
The win against the inexperienced German squad raised expectations, but the reverse against Australia and then to Argentina by fairly big margins pushed the team into the depths of despair. The prospect of playing for places 5-6 against Germany loomed large <147,4,0>even as Pakistan raised visions of taking a place in the final. And then came the magnificent performance, that 7-4 pummelling of Pakistan, easily the best contest in the championship. Trailing 1-3, India recovered to win 7-4 in an epic contest.
Then, what went wrong? The lessons are yet to be learnt. There was no pacing of the contest, which invariably was determined by the rivals. As the Dutch skipper Jeroen Delmee observed, hockey was a 70-minute game and not a 62-minute one as the Indians had imagined. It was the failure to defend the lead in the crucial final quarter that sent India to its doom. Individually, everyone was as good as the other, but none better than the strapping Jugraj Singh. This star has to be nursed and preserved like a diamond for the future as Pakistan does Sohail Abbas. He is definitely maturing into a dependable player, a genuine wing half as he showed in the bronze medal match in the absence of the injured Saini.
The expertise of Dhillon and Dhanraj was evident in the frontline. Deepak Thakur, Gagan Ajit Singh and Prabhjot Singh scored a <147,5,0>few spectacular goals that were enthralling both for their conception and execution, but they were also guilty of frittering away chances. Bimal Lakra and Ignace Tirkey were steady but far from brilliant, and in the deep defence, Kanwalpreet Singh, was prone to errors notwithstanding his exceptional work against Pakistan in the first match. The best, however, came from Dilip Tirkey almost throughout, through there was a question mark whether he was totally fit.
No analysis of India's performance would be complete without a big tribute to the performance of Devesh Chauhan. He was energetic and excellent in some of the saves he effected, especially against Sohail Abbas and Jorge Lombi. That Devesh has improved a lot is an understatment. He is now as good as anybody in the game today.
Argentina was like a tide, sometimes high and sometimes low. When the team attacked with vigour using the wing flow of Mario Almada or the thrusts of Matias Vila or Jorge Lombi, it was a class apart. Straight from the gold medal triumph in the Pan-Am Games in the Dominican Republic, where it met with very poor opposition — it beat the home team 30-0 — except Canada, it took quite a while to adjust to this level of challenge.
Yet, the team managed to be in focus for a final berth till that thrashing by Australia, which won 8-3. Lombi was the pillar of strength in penalty corners. He helped himself to 10 goals in the tournament and took the top spot among scorers. Carlos Retegui and Matias Paredes in the midfield played a significant role as did Tomas McCormick.
Germany prompted a lot of debate for fielding a second string team, so as to preserve the senior team for the European Championship at Barcelona. But the development team, being shaped for the 2006 World Cup, outlined its potential though it lost all the six matches. Justus Scharowsky and Alexander Sahmel in the defence, goalkeeper Christian Schulte and in the attack Benjamin Kopp showed the potential to reach the top soon.
For those statistically minded, the 18 matches produced 125 goals in nine days.
The event was impeccably conducted in a colourful atmosphere. The Netherlands Hockey Board (KNHB) has set new standards for host units to emulate. The Media facilities were excellent, and a lot of credit for putting through perfect working conditions should go to Arjen Rahusen and his team of volunteers who enjoyed every minute of their service to hockey.
It was once again an event to remember for a whole lot of things and not the least of which was the once-in-a-lifetime performance by India against Pakistan.