A morale boosting victory for India

Indian players celebrate after defeating Malaysia in the final.-AP

Though it would be wise not to read too much into the victory in Ipoh, it’s certain that Indian hockey is moving in the right direction. By S. Thyagarajan.

Is it a sign of resurgence? Minus the rhetoric, there is a filament of logic in the poser judged against the background of the triumph of India in the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament in Ipoh, Malaysia. The flood of debate following India’s performance has put the focus back on hockey. If anyone had struck the right chord in the aftermath of the highly convincing 3-1 victory over Malaysia in the final on April 12, it was none other than India’s chief coach, Harendra Singh.

After returning home, the coach cautioned not to go overboard though he noted that Indian hockey was moving in the right direction thus far after the calamitous slump consequent to the nation’s failure to make it to the 2008 Beijing Olympics for the first time in eight decades.

In the wake of some significant performances in Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and in the Four-Nation Gold Cup in Chandigarh, India started as favourite in Ipoh. A surprising 2-2 draw against Egypt in the opening match stunned many; but it must be said to the credit of the players that they managed to recover quickly and end the competition without a defeat in five matches, winning three, including the intense game against Pakistan. India beat Malaysia twice, in the league and then in the final, both by very impressive margins.

It is not easy to look beyond the gangling Sandeep Singh as the key element in the squad, inspiring players to the peak. He netted seven of the 12 goals that India scored. He is among the best hitters of penalty corners today. More than once in the tournament he proved this, and suffice to say he was the top scorer like last year and was declared the Player of the Tournament.

More than scoring, Sandeep exuded a touch of assurance and came off exceedingly well in one-to-one tackles, an area in which he was considered not strong enough some time ago. Perhaps, he is now more inclined towards making interceptions and clearances, playing shoulder to shoulder with the highest capped player in the world, Dilip Tirkey, a true veteran with a wealth of tricks inside the circle. To portray Dilip as the balancing factor in the team and an inspiration would be an understatement.

Baljit Singh under the bar was another important member of the Indian team. Agile, athletic and admirably endowed, Baljit was a picture of confidence. He relished tense moments and tackled them with noticeable vigour. In every match, he made a brilliant save or two. And in the final, Baljit’s performance came in for high praise.

If the yardstick is consistency, then full marks go to Gurbaj Singh. He prompted many a goal-bearing move, tackled with grit and gumption, and played with a good measure of imagination. An apt foil on the left was Prabodh Tirkey, whose efficiency in backing Dilip Tirkey whenever the latter advanced ahead was praiseworthy.

Uncomfortable in the role of a centre-half in the absence of the injured Vikram Pillay, the compactly built Sardar Singh was inhibited. Ignace Tirkey, a seasoned campaigner, engineered moves that befuddled the rivals. His presence was brief but whenever he was there, Ignace compelled attention.

Barring the final, the contribution of India’s frontline was meagre. Apart from creating penalty corners, its finishing was weak, unimaginative and embarrassingly innocuous. A lot of effort by the mid-field went waste several times. Arjun Halappa was an exception though. His opportunism came to the fore on a couple of occasions.

The expectations

For Malaysia’s new coach, Tang Beng Hai, the outcome provided clues to prepare for the coming Asia Cup. The home team’s win against Pakistan was one of the highlights. Goalkeeper Kumar Subramaniam came up with an impressive performance as did Ismail Abu, Chua Boon Huat, Rahim Rahim and Nabli, whose swift runs down the line imposed pressure on the rival teams.

Solid and structured, the Kiwis were no easy opponent for anyone. Their approach was strikingly professional, featuring every element of modern hockey, from clean trapping, clever passing to closing the gaps at every point in the field. You cannot pick a star from among them, but the performances of goalkeeper Kyle Pontifex, Richard Patherick, Joel Baker and Nicholas Wilson provided the needed inputs for coach Shane McLeod who will be striving to help New Zealand win a place in the World Cup in Delhi.

With a solitary win (against Egypt) in five matches, Pakistan presented a pathetic sight. Coach Shahid Ali Khan was at loss to explain the difficulties faced by his team. Apart from Shakeel Abbasi, who showed flashes of brilliance including a hat-trick against Egypt, none in the Pakistan squad impressed.

Egypt today is not a force in hockey. But playing in its first Azlan Shah tournament, the team showed the potential to develop into a formidable combination. Egypt’s Polish coach, Jerzy, has inculcated the virtues of European matrix system taking advantage of the individual strengths, including physical and height advantage. The 2-2 draw against India, the equaliser coming 33 seconds before the final whistle, inspired players like Ezz Ahmed and Mushtafa Walid to consistently pose danger to their rivals.

The 2009 edition of the Azlan Shah Cup might not have attracted the best of teams, but the intensity of the tournament never slackened as testified by the full house for the final.