THE boys took a solemn pledge at a nondescript hockey stadium in Poland. To uphold the pride and prestige of the National flag. News had just filtered in of India having lost to Pakistan in the play-off for the third place in the Champions Trophy in Amsterdam.
THE boys took a solemn pledge at a nondescript hockey stadium in Poland. To uphold the pride and prestige of the National flag. News had just filtered in of India having lost to Pakistan in the play-off for the third place in the Champions Trophy in Amsterdam. The despondency in the camp was understandable. Losing to Pakistan was shattering, especially after having beaten it in the league phase. But coach Harendra Singh, a fierce optimist, assembled the players in a group and drilled home the importance of a victory in the match which was about to begin. The opponent was traditional rival Pakistan and the under-21 junior Challenge Open tournament contest at Gniezno was a do-or-die affair.
India had won all its four matches preceding the encounter against Pakistan and Harendra had set his sight on the title. "I knew my boys well. I knew their calibre and potential. The team had shown enough confidence and I just made it known to them that we have to win this match at any cost.''
The message was clear. Win at any cost. The Indian camp had been subjected to some indecent remarks by the Pakistanis even as the players warmed-up for the match, which was a virtual final. "I didn't like the comments made by the Pakistani officials after our senior team lost to them at Amsterdam,'' said Harendra. The seniors had lost and now the juniors were ready to take the field barely ten minutes after the Amsterdam debacle.
Tension was high. So were Harendra's expectations. "I want you to whip them,'' he issued strict instructions to the players. The team sang the National Anthem on the sidelines and played havoc with the opponent, winning 5-0, and with it the trophy. The Pakistanis were outclassed and the Indians rejoiced in the triumph. "It is a tribute to our Kargil heroes,'' announced Harendra at the ground, as the Pakistanis melted into the crowd after the defeat.
The Indian juniors had once again fared exceptionally well. "It was a grand team effort. I give credit to every member and believe me the greatest satisfaction came from the fact that every match was played according to plan and at no stage did we lose our focus. I had told the boys that nothing short of a title would satisfy me even though I knew we had a long way to go. There are a few shortcomings but then we can always try and rectify our mistakes,'' the coach made an honest assessment.
The Indians gained from the consistency of the players. Adrian de Souza was a rock under the bar and was rightly adjudged the best goalkeeper. He conceded just one goal in the tournament and that too from a melee. His understudy, A. C. Kutappa, had a lot to learn from watching his colleague. The defence was handled strongly by William Xalxo, Sandeep Singh and Gurbaj Singh. There was inspiration from Vivek Gupta, Jagat Jyoti, Prabodh Tirkey, Nitin Kumar and Girish Pimpley. The forward line comprised Hamza Mujtaba, Tushar Khandekar, Hari Prasad, Bikas Toppo, Birendra Lakra and Adam Sinclair, all tested at various stages in the tournament.
In Harendra's opinion, the pick of the lot were Adrian, Tushar, Prabodh and Sandeep.
"We must groom Sandeep as a penalty corner specialist. His accuracy is amazing and what I like about him is his hunger to score more and more goals. As a defender, I think he's simply outstanding and in the years to come can be an asset to Indian hockey. Tushar was confidence personified all through and Prabodh was the livewire. It was a lethal combination but I want them to improve a lot in many aspects of the game. As a team, they have a long way to go but the future looks bright from what they achieved in Poland,'' said Harendra.
No wonder Prabodh was declared the best player of the tournament and Adrian the best goalkeeper. Sandeep, who scored four goals, including a hat-trick, against Pakistan, distinguished himself as a man for the future.
The Indian team beat France 10-0, Germany 3-0, Malaysia 3-0, Poland 9-1 and Pakistan 5-0. It scored from 18 of the 30 penalty corners and did not concede any of the 14 penalty corners. "These statistics speak for the team's overall performance,'' said Harendra, a former international.
Harendra put things in perspective when he said "the team had a lot to learn". Echoing his views, former greats Zafar Iqbal and Ashok Kumar struck notes of caution when assessing the victory in Poland. Former captain Ajitpal Singh does not give much credence to such wins. "You don't gain much from them,'' was his opinion.
How did Ashok weigh this victory? "To tell you honestly, I welcome the feat but how far would it go in raising the standards of Indian hockey. I've always maintained that hiding the true age is a big menace in our system. So I don't know if the players are actually of the age that they claim. You must see this win in the right perspective. You'll learn little by fooling yourself, claiming to be under-19 when you are not. We must first stop this practice of over-age players hogging the credit.''
It was not that Ashok felt there was nothing to gain at all. "As far as preparing the players for the future is concerned, this win should be an encouraging factor. We need to identify the players and groom them in specific departments. I would love to see whether the team has two good wingers to offer to the senior team, because our weakness at the higher level stems from the absence of quality wingers. It'll be great if this junior team can provide two speedy wingers who could don the role in the senior team in the coming months.''
Zafar saw the triumph as a "good sign'' for the future. "We always do well at the junior level. I don't understand why the same players fade away when they come to the senior league. I can't really say how many of these players can qualify to play in the big league. It's for the coach to guide us but the boys have proved themselves, winning all their matches convincingly.''
Reflecting at the results, Zafar praised the boys for excelling against Germany and Poland, especially when 14 of the 16 players were travelling to Europe for the first time. "I remember any team from these two countries would be tough to handle. So, winning against them at this level is indeed a good development. Beating Pakistan so convincingly was very good. I'm glad for the players,'' said Zafar.
Zafar expected the administration to follow the progress of some of the players who did well. "I've heard a lot about Sandeep and Tushar and hope to see them in the senior team soon. We've to find adequate replacements for some of the seniors and these two promise a lot. I would like them to enjoy such exposure for a year or so. We must have at least five or six foreign tours for our juniors because they must learn the intricacies and hardships of international hockey at a young age. There is no room for complacency and I would like to see this bunch maintain a level of consistency. Why do we always look only at the senior team. The future lies in these lads and they should be encouraged at all cost. We have to keep the back up force ready to ensure the seniors are on their toes. Only this kind of healthy competition for places within the team would help Indian hockey come up,'' Zafar noted.
The team returned to a quiet welcome and the unsung heroes dispersed, only to assemble a fortnight later for a camp in preparation for the ultimate goal — the junior World Cup.