WHAT prompted the Indian Hockey Federation to field a weak team without the six established players for the UBL under-21 four-nation tournament in Lahore is difficult to comprehend.


WHAT prompted the Indian Hockey Federation to field a weak team without the six established players for the UBL under-21 four-nation tournament in Lahore is difficult to comprehend. As the world champion, the IHF should have exercised greater caution in exposing an untested bunch to come to grips with Pakistan. In fact Pakistan is leaving no stone unturned to regain the top place in the junior power alignment.

The chief coach, Harendra Singh, explained that the six players could not be selected because of examinations. Even assuming that India was not keen to expose the entire bunch of talent in a trivial four-nation edition, the final verdict in a tempestuous title fight left the image somewhat dented. India lost by two goals against the home team, both the goals prompting unpleasant scenes and expulsions.

It would be churlish to agree that any India-Pakistan contest evokes emotions leading to verbal duels, stick-checks and voluble questioning of the umpiring decisions leading to ugly scenes. At least, hockey at the junior level should be devoid of such tantrums by players... even the team managers and coaches justify the reaction of the players.

Quite understandably, the under-21 event came into focus in view of the coming World Cup at Rotterdam in June-July. It must be stressed that India is the defending champion. A test of the stock available perhaps was inevitable in the first competition of the year. The second and a more important one will be on at Kuala Lumpur from March 25. There was understandable jubilation in the Pakistani camp for savouring the first success in nine years in a junior competition. The last win came in 1996 at Kuala Lumpur. But there cannot be more than one opinion in that Pakistan was the best prepared outfit among the four on view at Lahore. True, there was concern when a majority of the players were down with a virus attack on the eve of the tournament. But the team recovered to sweep through the event from start to finish.

Tahir Zaman, former International and chief coach, was right when he said after the victory that the outcome engendered a measure of confidence to the boys facing a stern test at the World Cup. What probably satisfied Tahir Zaman was the remarkably consistent performances by Tariq Aziz and Shakeel Abbasi, who has been part of the country's senior squad. How far will a player in the calibre of Imran Warsi be good enough to step into the shoes of a legend like Sohail Abbas is best left for a debate at this point. That the young Imran is being groomed to be the principal drag flicker for the future is now an accepted fact.

Indisputably, the confidence level is high after beating India twice in the competition, apart from brushing aside the two other opposition, South Africa and Japan. Though India succumbed without a fight in the first meeting — the team landed a day after the event began forcing the PHF to alter the programme — by three goals to nil, the final was closely contested. The 2-0 margin may look decisive but as the exchanges went, India did enjoy phases of dominance forcing as many as five penalty corners. It is here that the Indians found the absence of Sandeep Singh, a proven drag flicker.

The Indians were a bit disappointed by the award of the opening goal by Shakeel Abbasi. Although the Japanese umpire, Satoshi Konda, was unsure, the South African umpire, Peter Wright awarded it after the former consulted him. Even the second goal by Kashif Yacoob raised a hackle.

It was a struggle all right for the Indians from the opening day. The loss to Pakistan — India was scheduled to meet South Africa first but then the programme was altered because of late arrival — gave rise to apprehension whether India could reach the final. A hard fought draw against South Africa did not enthuse the officials to any great extent. But India made it after beating Japan by the odd goal in three to ensure a place in the final with four points. It is a pity that India with players from the senior ranks like Prabodh Tirkey and Hariprasad found the going tough at every turn. The latter was adjudged the Player of the Tournament while Nasir Ahmed of Pakistan won the Best Goal-keeper award. Japan claimed the Fair Play Trophy.

The results

Pakistan beat Japan 4-2; beat India 3-0; beat South Africa 4-1; India drew South Africa 4-4; beat Japan 2-1; South Africa drew with Japan 4-4; Semi-finals: Pakistan beat Japan 7-0; India beat South Africa 3-0; Third place: South Africa beat Japan 4-2; Final: Pakistan beat India 2-0

Final placings: 1. Pakistan, 2. India, 3. South Africa, 4. Japan.