A truly golden show

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

The victorious Indian team waving the national flag after its victory over Pakistan in the final. — Pic AFP-

BREAKING new barriers! Well, that seems to be the message from the Indian hockey camp. By recording two back-to-back wins in the inaugural edition of the Afro-Asian Games against traditional rivals, Pakistan, the Dilip Tirkey-led team scripted a new chapter in contemporary hockey. Consequently, when India recorded an emphatic 3-1 win in the final over the team from across the border to clinch the gold, the Indian fans could not have expected a better finish to the campaign in the Games.

The Pakistanis may entertain some solace by trying to project that they had come here to experiment by `resting' six senior players who figured in the last Asia Cup Championship, where incidentally it was India which got the better of them in the final. But, to downplay India's golden performance may not be truly justified. After all, the Indians deserved in the ultimate analysis all the accolades showered on them for the simple reason they were the best of the eight teams which were in the fray.

The march into the final was really emphatic but for the close shave against the Malaysians. The hosts started off with a convincing 5-1 win against Egypt, survived anxious moments in the dying minutes more due to complacency before overcoming Nigeria 5-3 and still managed to raise the game to great heights to record a 4-2 win over Pakistan in an inconsequential match.

The fact that Busan Asian Games gold medallist, Korea, was here with a full-strength team comprising six Olympians was a fair hint of how seriously the other teams took to the competition. Well, even Egypt was no pushover as it was the All-Africa Games gold medallist surprising South Africa 3-2 in the final.

Arjun Halappa pumps his fist after scoring the first goal against Pakistan in the title clash. -- Pic. VINO JOHN-

No doubt, India was severely tested by the resilient Malaysians in the semi-finals before scraping past in the tie-breaker. A dogged performance which might have exposed some loopholes. But, thanks to a brilliant show from goalkeeper Devesh Chauhan, who kept his cool under tremendous pressure to bring off a fine diving save against Chua Boon Huat in the nerve-wracking tie-breaker, India moved to the final with a 6-4 win after being locked one-all at the end of regulation time.

May be, the final was not a truly classy affair compared to the league match where India outplayed Pakistan, particularly in the second session. Yet the fact that India got the better of the rivals in the final of an Inter-Continental event was more important than anything else. A penalty-stroke when Gagan Ajit Singh and Prabhjot Singh were tripped inside the striking circle by a crowded defence which also saw the goalpost pushed a distance saw the referee show the `spot' in the sixth minute. The energetic Arjun Hallappa made no mistake. But within minutes, Pakistan fought back well to score the equaliser through a clean penalty-corner hit by Ghazanfar Ali.

Tension was palpable, both in the stands and on the field too. Gagan Ajit Singh was involved in a verbal duel withTariq Imran as the Pakistanis seemed to have decided that the best option to keep the Indians at bay was to give little freedom to this wily forward who gave his best against them.

Just when doubts were creeping in whether India could snatch the lead, Dilip Tirkey faked a penalty-corner hit to pave the way for the stocky Len Aiyappa to do the rest in the 33rd minute. It was a treat to watch. A move which rattled the Pakistan defence completely. No doubt, Pakistan did show glimpses of its original game when Wasim Ahmed on the left-flank and captain Muhammad Nadeem and Shakeel Abbasi upfront displayed the much desired creativity. As usual Rehan Butt on the flanks was enterprising. But the problem was they repeatedly ran into the rock-solid Indian defence. Coach Rajinder Singh's strategy to shore up the defence by pulling back Bimal Lakra beyond the 25-yard line really clicked. He showed amazing anticipation and skills to make some superb clearances. Truly complementing the agility and the solidity of his captain Tirkey, gutsy Harpal Singh and Devesh Chauhan. Even Viren Rasquinha made his mark with a neat job in the defence.

Len Aiyappa is ecstatic after successfully slotting a goal following a penalty corner. -- Pic. VINO JOHN-

That once Ghazanfar Ali, fed up with the way his penalty-corner hits were repeatedly blocked by the Indian defence, even tried an indirect hit in the final stages of the exciting final was itself a tribute to the efficacy of the Indian defence.

But the goal which decided the gold for India was yet another brilliant one-to-one effort from the now-formidable combine of Prabhjot Singh and Gagan Ajit Singh. It is an indisputable fact that the former brought a real touch of assurance with his splendid ball-control in his `own' territory — left flank. His popularity graph seems to be growing for everytime he is in the thick of a move, the crowd roars in anticipation. And, he rarely lets down either the crowd or the team. The speed, skills and creativity of Prabhjot Singh were something to be seen to be believed. And, the reason for such aggression upfront was also the consistency of Sandeep Michael, Ignace Tirkey in the half-line. Who can forget, Prabhjot Singh's fleeting run after snatching a loose ball from close to the half-line on the left-flank down the centre all alone to relay a quick pass to the waiting Gagan Ajit Singh. In a befitting response, Gagan Ajit Singh made a mockery of the Pakistan defence. Drawing the entire defence towards him, Gagan dribbled past to unleash a superb carpet drive on the run to give a 3-1 lead for India which virtually put Pakistan out of the match. An effort which had the capacity crowd give a standing ovation and trigger off a wave of celebration which ultimately stretched late into midnight.

And quite fittingly, it was 23-year-old Gagan Ajit Singh who demolished the Pakistani defence in the league match too with those two wonderful goals in the inconsequential league match to put his stamp of class on what turned out to be an authoritiative 4-2 victory. This spurred the emotions of millions of Indians and raised the pre-final expectations to a new high. "I love to score against them for it always gives me greater satisfaction," he told The Sportstar later.

Well, that this Indian team, with an unbeaten record in the Games, didn't really let the fans feel the absence of the mercurial Dhanraj Pillay in the forwardline was itself a great achievement in the run-up to the Olympics qualifyng tournament.

On the other hand, the Pakistanis may have made it to the final. But it was pretty obvious that the coach Tariq Zaman was spot on with his pre-tournament comment: "These Games are not on our priority. We came here to basically experiement with reserve talent." Quite interestingly, Pakistan continued to be unimpressive right through but kept on winning, except against the Indians. As Rehan Butt confessed that "they missed the penalty-corner expert Sohail Abbas badly here". For some strange reasons, they clearly lacked consistency in some key areas. This is what exactly the Indians made optimum use of through some sensible substitutions by the coach Rajinder Singh. The way he sent Len Aiyappa five minutes before the break in the final after the Indians went all out to earn penalty-corners turned out to be a clever move for it gave India the vital 2-1 lead. For the record, Pakistan entered the final defeating Nigeria 4-3, Egypt 3-1 and lost to India 2-4. Even in the semi-final, it was out of sorts but managed to hold on grimly and scored a 2-0 win over Korea thanks to the penalty-corner hit by Ghazanfar Ali and the second goal coming through the combine of Ashraf Zeeshan and Shakeel Abbasi. The problem for Korea was it failed to capitalise on many good scoring chances due to poor finishing up front.

Prabhjot Singh (left) and Ignace Tirkey in a celebratory mood during the league match against Egypt which India won 5-1. -- Pic. VINO JOHN-

The strongly-built Nigerians, who seemed to have brought the robust play of their footballers, were the surprise pack. Three players — Sunday Ogodogu David, Oluwa Segun Ademinisoro, Okwudili Peter Menyei stood out for their skills and bold approach. And, they almost created the biggest upset of the tournament by coming back strongly after trailing 1-3. Then levelled the scores only to lose 3-4 in the league match against Pakistan.

Their problem was poor finishing as they approached the `D'. They lacked grit and determination too. They were not overawed by the reputations of their rivals and gave enough hints that they should be the team to watch in the near future from the African Continent.

The results:

Final: India bt Pakistan 3-1. Semi-finals: India bt Malaysia 6-4; Pakistan bt Korea 2-0.

For third place: Korea bt Malaysia 2-1. Fifth place: South Africa bt Egypt 3-2; Seventh place: Nigeria bt Ghana 3-2.