A tremendously fulfilling year

S. THYAGARAJAN

WHEN looking at the numerous events that rolled by into the recess of hockey history in 2002 it is difficult to remain unfascinated by the iridescence of the game that acquired new shades of development. What more can the aficionados demand than a calendar which featured two World Cups, an equal number of Champions Trophies, a Champions Challenge and the Commonwealth Games, apart from several international and continental championships!

The Germans with the World Cup.

The competitions spread over the year presented to the chronicler a pleasant panorama of exotic fare, exciting contests and exhilarating moments. What lent an added dimension was the divergent power equations that only underlined the alternating structure of development. A novelty was the 16-team format for the World Cup events though it had to be altered a bit following representations.

The men's competition at Kuala Lumpur was not only advanced by a week to avoid a clash with the immensely popular F-1 racing event, but the FIH even agreed to abolish the 4 x 4 format in favour of two groups of eight teams, notwithstanding the apprehensions of coaches and managers about the strain on the players. Admittedly, the competition was a triumph for the Malaysian Hockey Federation in the area of organisation and achievement with the home team finishing eighth, its highest rating ever in the event. Magnificent was the spectator response.

It was, however, a dream finish for Germany, its first ever triumph in the final against Australia, the victory coming by the odd goal in three. The gangling Florian Kunz led a remarkably talented German squad under the coaching of Bernhard Peters. The team had a wonderful sequence of victories till Spain shattered it in the league stage with a 3-2 win. Both in quality and in content, not to speak of strategies, Germany was remarkably consistent thanks to the experience and expertise of stars like Chrisian Mayerhofer, Michael Green, Sascha Reinalt, Oliver Domke and Clemens Arnold.

Germany's ecstasy was Australia's agony. Unbeaten in the league with seven outright wins totalling 21 points, and thrashing the defending champion, the Netherlands 4-1 in the semi-final, the Aussies crashed after leading 1-0 in the final. "Our forward line did not have the same impact like it had with the Netherlands, I give full credit to the German defence," observed Barry Dancer, the Aussie coach. Almost in a similar state of agony were the Koreans, who courted disaster during the golden period against the Netherlands in the third and fourth place match.

But the real drama of the World Cup was outside the field of play. It was, ironically enough, scripted by India. The issue of changing the coach midstream after a series of disastrous performances injected an element of bitterness all round. For all the preparations under Cedric D'Souza for well over a year, India had a pathetic start and a poor course in the first four matches.

When Cedric was asked to give way to the assistant coach, C. R. Kumar for the tie against Cuba, the former perceived it as a humiliating move and nothing short of a sacking. The denials by the IHF on this score were unacceptable to him as they were to many others. Cedric, along with the team's doctor, Kannan Pugazhendi and assistant coach, Divnain Singh left the city by the first available flight. "It is humiliating for me to stay. As far as I am concerned my services are not required and I am going back. They (Indian Hockey Federation) have taken their decision and I have taken mine," said Cedric.

Celebration time for the South Korean men after the Asian Games final against India.

The IHF Secretary, Jothikumaran, responded, "When a person is asking for divine intervention and Lady Luck what's wrong with accepting IHF's intervention?" The episode, morale shattering as it was, finally ended with India taking the 10th place, its lowest ever rating in a World Cup.

Inevitably, the search was on for a new coach, and the choice fell on Rajinder Singh, who was riding the crest of success after the Junior World Cup that India won for the first time at Hobart in 2001. After a few unsettling weeks, Rajinder Singh endeavoured to introduce a new element of strategy, terming the approach of his predecessor as ''negative.'' The twin tournaments at Adelaide and Melbourne, which had some lively moments despite the humiliating 6-1 defeat in the final against Australia, helped fine tune the attack.

The return of veteran Dhanraj Pillay for the Champions Trophy at Cologne — India had qualified for it for the first time after 1996 by winning the Champions Challenge at Kuala Lumpur in December 2001 — gave the team the needed punch in the attack. After almost conquering Holland and Germany in the earlier matches, India touched the peak against Pakistan with a spectacular winning performance in the league. It was hockey at its aesthetic zenith with Dhanraj touching new realms of excellence. While Dhanraj cornered the focus, it is not easy to dismiss the quality performance of Gagan Ajit Singh, Prabhjot Singh, Bimal Lakra and skipper Dilip Tirkey. Yet, India missed a medal, leave alone a chance of appearing in the final, succumbing to Pakistan in a most dramatic fashion in the third place match after leading 3-0 and losing 3-4 in the end. However, this Champions Trophy also cut the sequence for Germany, which lost the final to the Netherlands in the tie-breaker.

The euphoria of victory over Pakistan in the Cologne league almost made everyone optimistic of India defending the gold at the Busan Asiad. There too, India scored a dramatic victory over Pakistan — the match-winner by Gagan Ajit Singh was a marvellous effort — but failed at the final hurdle, again in a heart-rending fashion. Recovering from 0-3 to 3-3, India was felled in the final minute by the South Koreans. A red card for Jugraj Singh only accentuated the intensity of the tragedy. The South Koreans who had an appalling Champions Trophy tournament finishing last of the six confirmed their Olympic berth to Athens at Busan. The Asiad, however, proved a bonanza for Malaysia. It regained the bronze after 12 years with a victory against Pakistan, which played deplorably to leave the scene without a medal for the first time in the Asian Games, evoking tremendous criticism back home. This only added to its misery after the humiliating 1-7 defeat against New Zealand at Manchester in the Commonwealth Games.

The Aussies also had a poor run at the Champions Trophy but only a fortnight before they had retained the Commonwealth gold beating New Zealand. Pakistan won the bronze against South Africa.

Celebration time for the Argentine women, the winners of the World Cup after a victory over the Netherlands.

Equally enervating was the scene on the distaff side which confirmed the emergence of China as a powerhouse matching the Aussies and the Dutch. China's maiden triumph in a penalty shoot-out against Argentina in the Champions Trophy at Macau underlined the rapid strides the team had made, which was further strengthed by the gold secured at Busan and the bronze obtained at the Perth World Cup against Australia, which was pushed to the fourth place.

The first World Cup win for Argentina at Perth was only a culmination of its consistently good showing in recent years. Players such as Lucina Aymar and Cecilia Rognoni are world class in their own right. The Dutch fell at the last hurdle in the tie-breaker, but shocking was the decline of Australia after Ric Charlesworth left the scene as the coach, giving way to David Bell.

The triumphant Indian outfit at the Manchester Commonwealth Games.

For India, the most cherished moment came when the team posted a remarkable victory at Manchester beating England through a golden goal by Mamta Kharab. Though the match-winner generated a bout of controversy, it was eventually resolved that India was the winner. Written off as lost after finishing third in the Pool, India, taking advantage of the new format requiring the second and the third-placed teams to play again for the semi-final berth — conquered South Africa 4-3 and then overpowered New Zealand 2-1 in the semi-final. By any reckoning, these were outstanding performances by the Indians for whom Jyoti Kullu, Pritam Siwach, Suraj Lata Devi and Mamta Kharab were prominent.

It was a pity that India did not make it to the World Cup, pushed out by the United States in the play-off series at Connock in the third match after drawing the two previous encounters. Perhaps, the verdict would have been different if the series had been held in India as agreed. But the US team left the country a few days before the match citing security concerns. India also performed well at the Champions Challenge in Randburg (South Africa) finishing third. England was the winner there.

The FIH's goal of globalisation received a tremendous boost after identifying a global sponsor in HDO and Robo Bank. The details were finalised at Perth before the Congress which re-elected Peter Cohen as Secretary-General, and voted in a new treasurer, in Douglas Grey of Ireland. The Executive Board also ratified two modifications in the penalty corner rule for experimentation from January 1, 2003.

Michael Green of Germany and Jaime Dwyer of Australia were declared Player of the Year for men and Young Player respectively, while Cicilia Rognoni of Argentina and her colleague in the team, Agustina Garcia, were the best among the women.