A string of successes

India's Jugraj Singh (left), Dilip Tirkey (middle) and Dhanraj Pillay celebrate the team's fourth goal against Spain in the four-nation Hamburg Masters in Germany. India won 4-2 to lift the trophy. -- Pic. AP-India's Jugraj Singh (left), Dilip Tirkey (middle) and Dhanraj Pillay celebrate the team's fourth goal against Spain in the four-nation Hamburg Masters in Germany. India won 4-2 to lift the trophy. -- Pic. AP

Four trophy triumphs, including the win in the Asia Cup and gaining an automatic berth for the next World Cup in 2006, were no mean achievements by the Indian men's hockey team, writes S. THYAGARAJAN.

AN introspection into what rolled out for Indian hockey this year generates a tremendous feel good factor. Seldom has a year lapsed into history with such a string of successes prompting everyone to talk of a regeneration. Four trophy triumphs, including the win in the Asia Cup and gaining an automatic berth for the next World Cup in 2006, were no mean achievements.

Statistically speaking, India claimed 14 victories out of the 26 played, against 12 countries, losing only eight in the bargain.

The highest number of eight matches came against the traditional rival Pakistan with five victories, two defeats and a draw. Outstanding among them was the 7-4 scoreline in the Champions Trophy, though the team fumbled in the next two days to the same side to concede the bronze medal. However, the Asia Cup outcome established India as the superior outfit of the two and it was re-asserted during the Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad. Hearteningly, no less than five Indians, Gagan Ajit Singh, Prabhjot Singh, Jugraj Singh, Devesh Chauhan and Dilip Tirkey, were nominated for the FIH awards. But surprisingly, not one of them was lucky enough to get on to the podium at Sydney. A real pity indeed for a team, which won four trophies of the five contested.

India defeated Pakistan in the hockey final of the inaugural Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad. -- Pic. VINO JOHN-

The fascinating sequence for India began in Sydney where Australia was conquered in the men's challenge. This was followed by the trophy triumph in the four-nation Hamburg Masters where even a defeat against the Germans did not stop India emerging on top. Argentina and Spain were the others in the field.

Earlier, India played a one-off Test at Duisburg against the World champion and drew 2-2 in a tempestuous encounter in which the team staged a brief walk out.

The twin successes in Sydney and Hamburg definitely raised the bar of expectations for the Champions Trophy. The Olympic champion, the Netherlands, was almost conquered with a 3-0 lead in the opening match but the Indians succumbed in the last eight minutes to surrender that and court a defeat. Finally, India settled for the fourth slot, the same as the previous year.

Internationally reputed coaches reckoned that India was the best outfit of the year mainly on account of the presence of an excellent blend of youth and experience. If Dhanraj Pillay, Baljit Singh Dhillon and Baljit Singh Saini along with Dilip Tirkey represented the senior brigade, the combination of Gagan Ajit Singh, Deepak Thakur and Prabhjot Singh, in association with Viren Resquinha, Bimal Lakra and Ignace Tirkey symbolised the ebullience of youth.

Gagan Ajit Singh (left) finished the year with a tally of 20 goals. — Pic. VINO JOHN.-

Some of the goals that Deepak, Prabhjot and Gagan struck were outstanding as were the two goals that Ignace Tirkey netted; one against Australia for a draw 25 seconds before the hooter in Wolloongong and the match-winner against Pakistan in the Asia Cup final. Gagan Ajit Singh finished the year with a tally of 20 goals followed by Prabhjot Singh (16) and Deepak Thakur (10). And the find of the year was Sandeep Micheal whose timely goals ensured him a permanent place and won him many admirers.

A special word of tribute is not out of place for the chief coach, Rajinder Singh, for shaping a winning combination. Although he was not very media friendly — he even debarred the reporters from attending the trials — he forced the IHF abandon the idea of inviting a foreign coach after the Champions Trophy. Amidst all this mood of euphoria and strength came the tragic accident in September of Jugraj Singh, who was moving into the orbit of becoming a world-class drag flicker. After a series of operations in Ludhiana, Delhi and the United States, he is now on the comeback trail.

Members of the Indian hockey team greet the injured penalty-corner specialist Jugraj Singh after the Asia Cup triumph. The team shared the trophy with Jugraj, who suffered multiple fractures in a car crash in September. — Pic. AFP-

Perhaps the finest hour of Indian hockey in 2003 was the signing of the sponsorship deal with Sahara-India for an undisclosed sum. Suddenly, the status of a hockey player came up to that of a Test cricketer, thanks to the initiative and support lent by the group headed by the sports-loving chief, Subrata Roy Sahara.

Competitive hockey elsewhere too was eventful. Across the border tempers rose and fell as one controversy or the other surfaced, especially after the poor performances against India. Actually, Pakistan began well, beating Germany in the final of the Azlan Shah Trophy, which India missed because of non-clearance by the Government. But the Australian tour without Sohail Abbas and Wassem proved a disaster. The polemics over the participation of Sohail and Wassem in the German league without clearance from the PHF and the allegations against the manager, Shahnaz, acquired the contours of a scandal forcing the manager to quit. Sohail and Wassem were fined for their action.

The Netherlands retained the men's Champions Trophy at Amstelveen.-

The other manager Abdul Rashid (Jr) quit after the debacle in the Asia Cup at Kuala Lumpur leaving everything in a state of flux. Before the Afro-Asian Games, Pakistan roped in the former Dutch coach, Roelant Oltmans, as the chief coach.

The Netherlands retained the Champions Trophy beating Australia in the final after a series of delightful performances under the chief coach, Joost Belaart, at Amstelveen. Teun di Nooijer was nominated the Player of the Tournament, and he also won enough votes to get the FIH Player of the Year 2003 award in Sydney on December 5. But the Dutch came across a bad patch in the European Cup at Barcelona, managing only a bronze medal, which has forced them to fight for a place for the Olympics through a qualifier at Madrid in March 2004. The Dutch sentiments were badly shaken by this development; the Netherlands is the back-to-back Olympic gold medallist. The consequent player revolt ensured the exit of Joost Belarrt in disgrace, paving the way for the Australian, Terry Walsh, to take control of the team.

World champion Germany retained the European Cup and got a berth for the Athens Olympiad after ignoring the Champions Trophy at Amstelveen. With only a fortnight separating between the Champions Trophy and the European Cup, the German coach, Bernhard Peters, advised the federation to field a second string to Amstelveen and the seniors for the other.

Although the FIH was miffed by this attitude, at the end of the day, Germany won the European Cup and is secure in the knowledge that its place is sure in the next Champions Trophy as the World champion.

But the best development in Europe last year was the progress of Spain under the Dutch coach Maurits Hendriks. After a none-too-convincing outing in the four-nation Masters at Hamburg, Spain won the Champions Challenge at Rundburg with a remarkable 7-3 verdict against South Korea. And, what more, Spain finished as runner-up to Germany in the European Cup.

Quite predictably, there was a lot of focus on spotting the Olympic qualifiers.

Indian coach Rajinder Singh (right) was instrumental in shaping a winning combination. — Pic. VINO JOHN.-

Argentina won the right from the Americas after winning the Pan-American title, while Egypt shocked many by prevailing over South Africa in the Pan-African Games at Abhuja. The Aussies won the three-match series against New Zealand to obtain the Oceania berth.

On the distaff side, as the gold medallist in the Commonwealth Games at Manchester, India expected some rewarding moments. But nothing of that sort came its way. The Indian Women's Hockey Federation made a claim to be part of the 10 teams for the Olympic qualifier in place of England, whose eligibility came into question. But the FIH awarded India only the status of a reserve for the qualifier at Auckland.

However, India recorded a memorable gold medal win at the Afro-Asian Games beating such world-class outfits as South Africa and South Korea. Goalkeeper Helen Innocent performed exceedingly well for the Indians as also the consistent Suman Bala. Of the 10 matches played this year, India won five.

The Australian women defeated China 3-2 to clinch the women's Champions Trophy in Sydney. -- Pic. AP-

Australia bounced back into the reckoning after some poor performances to regain the Champions Trophy at Sydney in December. Germany with the win in the Champions Challenge will come back next year into the six-team fray. China, which began well in the Champions Trophy, failed against the Aussies in the final. Looking back at what went through this year of eventful programmes, it is difficult to refrain from acknowledging the fact that the International Hockey Federation had put in a great deal of effort to keep up the tempo.

The Global sponsor, Samsung, joined the other two, BDO and Robo Bank, during the Champions Trophy at Amstelveen.

Whatever the target set, the FIH achieved it with a measure of persistence and the major success came in the area of securing space on television and getting noticed in prominent networks as BBC and CNN. Live telecast of matches even within Europe can be counted as a striking progress in the endeavour to making competitive hockey a truly global sport.