A perfect match

Kumar Subramaniam (left) prepares to baulk South Korea’s Hong Sung Kweon in the Asia Cup semifinal. The Malaysian goalkeeper did an excellent job.-R. RAGU Kumar Subramaniam (left) prepares to baulk South Korea’s Hong Sung Kweon in the Asia Cup semifinal. The Malaysian goalkeeper did an excellent job.

The Kumar-Shahid Khan combination worked wonders for Malaysia in the Asia Cup. The goalkeeper and the goalkeeping coach have forged a wonderful association, writes K. Keerthivasan.

Malaysia went down 2-1 to South Korea in the semifinals of the BSNL-Asia Cup hockey championship. It, however, did not despair, for the team knew it could have conceded more goals than what it actually did.

Kumar Subramaniam was Malaysia’s star-turn. The 27-year-old goalkeeper stopped the lethal strikes of drag-flicker Jang Jong Hyun time and again to prevent Korea from emerging runaway winners.

The emergence of Kumar as an improved goalkeeper can be linked to the appointment of Shahid Ali Khan as Malaysia’s goalkeeping coach. The two have developed the kind of understanding seldom seen in hockey today. Thanks to Kumar’s willingness to put in more hours of hard work, and his admiration for Shahid’s dedication and abilities, the two hit it right from the first day.

For close to eight years, Shahid was associated with the Pakistan team, helping out the goalkeepers. He was eased out after the World Cup in Germany last year when a new set of office-bearers took charge of the Pakistan Hockey Federation. Shahid, however, has no regrets. “The management wanted change. They wanted their own people,” he said philosophically.

In the needle group match against Japan, Kumar’s prowess came to the fore. His anticipation and footwork enabled Malaysia to qualify for the semifinals. “I still feel that was my best match. Our progress to the last four stage depended on the match. We were under tremendous pressure,” explained Kumar.

Shahid, who took charge as Malaysia’s goalkeeping coach during the Sultan Azlan Shah Trophy this year, instilled self-belief in Kumar. The way the goalkeeper positions himself during short corners has improved. He is not static, and his anticipation is quite admirable. To anticipate and move one’s hands and feet in time to block the speedy hits of Jang Jong Hyun requires hours of practice under the bar. And Kumar is not known to shirk work.

“Goalkeeper training is not about simply practising with the players. It needs special training and a specialist coach,” said Shahid Khan.

He is of the view that goalkeepers should be sweepers. “Their eyes should travel with the ball. Most goalkeepers are often not in the right position. Most goals by drag-flickers are scored with the ball scraping through the goalkeeper’s pads or hands. Such goals amount close to 85 per cent. If you save them, your team is saved,” averred Shahid.

Kumar feels that he has another five years of active play. “I think I am getting better. I will be at the peak of my abilities when I am in my thirties. You know Holland’s Guus Vogels is in his 30s and so is the current South Korean goalkeeper Ko Ding Sik,” Kumar said.

Kumar is eager to represent Malaysia in the Olympics. “Any sportsperson’s ultimate dream is the Olympics,” he said.

As for his future plans, Shahid said: “Right now, the Olympic qualifiers is my target. The Malaysian Hockey Federation has orally given me permission to be with the team till the 2012 Olympics. But I am working with the Pakistan International Airlines and my family is in Pakistan. It’s not easy to shift base from Pakistan to Malaysia. I have an open mind.”

At a time when most European countries are relying more and more on the drag-flickers for goals, the goalkeepers need to devise ways and means to counter them. Only a specialist goalkeeping coach can help here. The Kumar-Shahid Khan combo is a case in point.