A fill for the fans

After a long time the Nehru hockey tournament in the Capital saw the top National players in action.

K. P. Mohan

After a long time the Nehru hockey tournament in the Capital saw the top National players in action. Invariably, camps or foreign assignments have prevented the top players from turning up for their respective teams in this premier tournament. But this time it was different. And that meant keener competition and a better fare for the enthusiastic crowds that turned up at the Shivaji Stadium.

Jubilant members of the Punjab Police team, which won the Nehru Cup in New Delhi. — Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

It was unfortunate that the final failed to come up to expectations though some of the earlier rounds did build up the tempo towards an exciting climax. Punjab Police retained the prestigious trophy, defeating the same team it had conquered last year, too, in the final. Indian Airlines might have looked better prepared this time the way it progressed to the final, but disappointed in the all-important clash.

Baljit Singh Dhillon and his brother Daljeet Dhillon were the stars for Punjab Police in the final, the former getting in two goals and the latter the other one. All the three goals came off penalty corners in the last quarter.

In the light of the serious injuries that drag-flicker Jugraj Singh suffered in the road accident, his subsequent rehabilitation and absence from the National team, Baljit Dhillon's success in penalty corner sequences with his drag-flicks must have given some comforting thought for National coach Rajinder Singh, a keen observer at the Shivaji Stadium, for the important matches.

The other drag-flicker of prominence, Len Aiyappa, was also able to show his craft during the tournament, though he failed in the crucial semifinal against Punjab Police, sending two such awards wide to dash Bharat Petroleum's hopes. Aiyappa was good in defence, too.

Throughout the tournament, the focus largely remained, understandably, on men like Dhanraj Pillay, Gagan Ajit Singh, Baljit Dhillon, Devesh Chauhan, Dilip Tirkey, Aiyappa, Deepak Thakur and Prabhjot Singh. All of them managed to live up to their stature, though not always producing the results that their teams might have been expecting. Tirkey was one man who performed consistently throughout, at times even venturing up into the midfield to pep up his team-mates.

Baljit Dhillon of Punjab Police (left) is on the move while Bimal of Indian Airlines tries to intercept him in the final of the Nehru Cup. Punjab Police retained the title. — Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

Dhanraj Pillay had his spells, like in the second half against Punjab Police in the final when he laid some exquisite passes that went abegging with the ageing Mukesh Kumar being the main culprit. This is not to suggest that Mukesh was a failure. He did fail in the final but despite having considerably slowed down, he was able to show some of his old magic in a couple of other matches.

That Dhanraj Pillay had to do much of the scheming for Indian Airlines meant that up front there were no goal-poachers of his calibre. Arjun Halappa was sporadic in his brilliance while Hari Prasad did not have the experience to provide the kind of support that Dhanraj must have been looking for.

Gagan Ajit Singh also had a similar story like Dhanraj in the Punjab Police line-up, though he ended up on the winning side. Heavily marked in all the matches, he performed much of the time on the wings and thus came by fewer goal-scoring chances. He did pose a threat to all the teams, but it was Baljit Dhillon's play-making abilities and his penalty-corner expertise that eventually tilted the balance in the final. Punjab Police missed an injured Tejbir Singh, an impressive performer in the striking position as well as a "feeder'' in the final.

There is a solidity in Punjab Police, in almost all departments, that the best of frontlines find it difficult to even force penalty corners leave alone goal-bearing openings. That its defence conceded just a single penalty corner in the final, against six earned by its forwards, should give a clear picture of its ability. It was not that Indian Airlines did not make any worthwhile moves at all upfront. Full marks to defenders Jaskaran Singh and Balwant Singh. They surely must have benefited from the advice of their manager, Pargat Singh, the best tackler in Indian hockey in his time.

Bharat Petroleum held Punjab Police to a 2-2 draw in the super league after leading by two goals at one stage. BPCL could not repeat that performance in the semifinal and lost by two goals. Sabu Varkey, the mastermind in BPCL's attacking machinery, was not given the room to make inroads into the defence and though there was a late surge by him, Baljit Dhillon's fag-end goal, and his team's second, effectively sealed BPCL's fate.

Tamil Nadu XI made a surprise entry into the semifinals before being trounced 6-1 by Indian Airlines. Captain of the team, L. Prabhakaran, was the hero for Tamil Nadu in all its matches, especially in its dramatic 5-4 victory over Air-India in the quarterfinals. Tamil Nadu had trailed 1-3 at one stage before making a strong comeback in this match. An inexperienced defence allowed plenty of room for Dhanraj and Mukesh to play havoc in the semifinals.

Of the teams that played in the quarterfinals, Railways, Namdhari XI, Border Security Force and Air- India proved disappointments.