A shot in the arm for IWHF

RAKESH RAO

The victorious Australian team... cashing in on India's inexperience.-V. SUDERSHAN

SELDOM has a women's hockey event, organised in India, seen so much emphasis on details. The seventh edition of the Indira Gandhi International Gold Cup hockey tournament for women had everything in keeping with the demands of today's sponsor. From the basics of logistics to the presentation, from the designing of the logo to the especially composed theme music, the tasks were painstakingly executed. In short, the packaging looked just right.

In fact, no eyebrows were raised when, instead of the "gold cup," there was an in-vogue crystal cup in place. With India reaching the final, ahead of its third seeding in the five-nation event, the stage was set for a fitting finale. Only if India had succeeded in keeping its 2-0 lead against Australia in the final, all the efforts would have given maximum returns to the Indian Women's Hockey Federation.

Never mind the 3-5 defeat, via the tie-breaker in the final, India had played well enough to stand up to the mighty Australians and keep the score at 2-2 after 85 minutes of action. Even in the tie-breaker, India's captain and custodian Helen Mary saved two shots but some erratic shooting from her team-mates tilted the scales in favour of the gallant Australian team.

Spread over eight days, the event was used by the teams concerned as a testing ground before the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, next March. Australia and New Zealand played out a goalless draw in their first outing and gave the impression of holding more cards than they showed during the contest. These teams pointed to the "hot" conditions in New Delhi for the below par showings but never really complained. The "slow" turf at the National Stadium forced the visiting teams to alter their game to derive the most of the opportunities.

Australian Megan Rivers (6) and Suzie Faulkner celebrate their team's first goal, watched by Indian custodian Helen Mary and defender Pushpa Pradhan during the final league match.-V. SUDERSHAN

Australia, which took time to settle down in the competition, warmed up for the big battle against India by scraping past Malaysia 2-1 and whipping Italy 4-1. When it faced India in the last league game, the host was already assured of a place in the final, while Australia needed at least a draw to pip New Zealand. As it turned out, Australia raced away to a 2-0 victory on the eve of the final, against India.

The final truly brought out the indomitable spirit of the Aussies. Down by two goals, scored by Mamta Kharab and Saba Anjum, Australia struck twice through penalty corners in the space of three minutes to draw level. This was the price paid by the Indians for employing over-defensive tactics and playing right into the hands of the rivals.

Australia's coach Frank Murrey pointed to India's "inexperience" that showed up in its attempt to defend the lead. India's coach M. K. Kaushik did not differ as he said, "No team in the world can hope to defend a two-goal lead by playing defensively. We have seen matches where even a three-goal lead could not be protected. I am sure the girls must have learnt a great deal from this match. They played very well but the Australians showed they are ahead on many parameters."

Saba Anjum dribbles past Malaysia's Sebah Kari. Anjum scored both the goals for India.-V. SUDERSHAN

India defended well in most games, including the final where Australia forced 13 penalty corners. Australia, which struggled to convert penalty corners right through the competition, eventually struck when it mattered the most. Overall, Australia forced 48 penalty corners and converted only four besides wasting the two penalty strokes that came its way.

Overall, the Indians exceeded expectations. The team had seven juniors from the squad that returned from Santiago, Chile, after playing the junior World Cup. The presence of Helen Mary and Sanggai Chanu meant the team had two survivors from the squad that played the last edition of the event in 1996. Playing in home conditions was obviously a huge advantage. With the small crowd cheering the home team vociferously, the Indians were expected to make the most of a very thoughtfully drawn schedule of matches.

Saba Anjum was clearly the best Indian on view. She worked the hardest and created opportunities. Mamta Kharab, despite a pulled hamstring, carried on gamely and did well upfront. Jasjeet Kaur could not play to her potential. Under the bar, Helen Mary did a commendable job.

Nikki Hudson (middle) opens the account for Australia against Malaysia.-RAJEEV BHATT

After warming up with victories over Malaysia and Italy, India downed New Zealand 2-1 to make sure of the final berth. It is not often in any international competition that India assures itself of a place in the title-clash with a match in hand.

The situation gave New Zealand some hope. It met Malaysia and tried to improve its net goal-difference hoping to pip Australia in the event of this rule coming into play. After New Zealand's 4-2 victory, Australia needed just a draw against India to dash its neighbour's hopes of making the final. As it turned out, Australia easily tamed a lacklustre India.

Kayla Sharian of New Zealand takes a shot at the Malaysian goal during the league phase.-V. SUDERSHAN

Italy, meanwhile, earned a play-off match by pushing Malaysia to the last spot. When the Italians met the dispirited Kiwis, they avenged the loss suffered in the league by carving out a 2-1 verdict for the third place.

On the whole, it was heartening to note that both Australia and New Zealand had sent most of their leading players for this revived event. Australia, ranked fourth in the world, is in the process of working towards getting back its number one ranking from the Netherlands. Argentina and Germany are the other two teams ahead of Australia in world rankings. The three-time Olympic gold medallist is preparing to win back the Commonwealth gold it last won in 1998.

The sixth-ranked New Zealand, which lost 1-2 to India in the semi-final of the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games, is rebuilding its side. Only two players, Diana Weavers and Ninwa Roberts-Lang were absent from the line-up owing to injuries. Their replacements Krystal Forgesson and Kate Sanders gave a fair account of themselves. According to coach Ian Rutledge, the team was preparing hard for the World Cup qualifiers (a three-match series against Australia) and the Commonwealth Games. "This event gives us an opportunity to assess where we are. I see that Australia and India are better. But we have the potential to improve a lot."

Malaysia, which held India 3-3 in Singapore before the latter went on to win the four-nation event recently, did well to restrict the host nation and Australia to the narrowest of victory margins. This young team even took a 2-0 lead against New Zealand and looked like finishing a creditable fourth, ahead of Italy. But it failed to click against Italy in the last league match and ended last.

The results Final: Australia bt India 5-3 (2-2). For third place: Italy bt New Zealand 2-1.

League: Australia drew with New Zealand 0-0; India bt Malaysia 2-1; New Zealand bt Italy 2-1; India bt Italy 5-0; Australia bt Malaysia 2-1; New Zealand bt Malaysia 4-2; Australia bt Italy 4-1; India bt New Zealand 2-1; Australia bt India 2-0; Italy bt Malaysia 3-0.