A year to remember

The power alignments were fascinating. No country emerged as a single dominant power. The ups and downs brought to the fore the unpredictable element of the sport in a breathtaking panorama, writes S. Thyagarajan.

Introspection into what 2006 was for competitive hockey envelops one in an emotional melange. Eventful more than ever, the year that passed into history underlined the growth of the sport that is charting new dimensions. Two World Cups, an equal number of qualifiers, Champions Trophy events, the Commonwealth Games and a clutch of other tournaments ... well, it was a fascinating agenda.

The power alignments in hockey, however, were fascinating. No country emerged as a single dominant power. The ups and downs brought to the fore the unpredictable element of the sport in a breathtaking panorama.

A bird's eye view would confirm that hockey's power centre lies in Europe where the big two, Germany and the Netherlands, continue to enjoy a high rating followed by Spain and England.

The Commonwealth Games set the tone and tenor for the hockey fiesta during the year. Based on its twin triumphs at the Games in Melbourne, Australia was expected to dominate both in the men's and women's World Cups.

But in what would go down in history as one of the most memorable World Cup finals, at Monchengladbach, host Germany recovered from a hopeless position to defeat Australia and retain the trophy. It was an encounter on which a sports ballad can be penned.

The Australian women, led by Nikki Hudson, succumbed to the overall might of the Dutch in the World Cup in Madrid. Interestingly, Australia finished runners-up in both the World Cups.

The triumph in Madrid was a big relief to the Netherlands whose men's team finished seventh at Monchengladbach. Roelant Oltmans and his star players, Taeke Taekema, Teun de Nooijer and Jerome Delmee, to name a few, failed to live up to expectations. They were behind the Dutch team's victory in the Champions Trophy in Terrassa, Spain, and the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

However, the nomination of Teun de Nooijer and Minke Booij (women) as the best players of the year was a big boost to the Dutch.

Germany had its best year. Its men's team rode on the bravura of Christopher Zeller to retain the World Cup, while the women surprised many by winning the Champions Trophy in Amsterdam riding on a string of splendid performances by Fanny Rinne.

Much was expected of Maurits Hendriks and his bunch of stars, Pol Amat, Eduard Tabau and Santi Friexa, after their Champions Trophy success in Lahore in 2005. True, the team was very much on the fringe, but did not really reach there. The bronze medals on its home turf in the Champions Trophy and at the World Cup did not justify the strength and skill of the team.

Compared with the incandescence of Europe, Asia fell into the twilight zone. But for some striking displays by South Korea in the World Cup — the team almost won a medal — and Japan in the women's competition, there was nothing much to write home about.

Korea, which finished behind New Zealand in the men's World Cup qualifier in Changzhou, China, made it to the last four at Monchengladbach. The Japanese women, who finished third at the Rome qualifier, performed exceedingly well, thanks to the striking performances by Kaori Chiba and

Tomomi Komori, to finish among the top five in Madrid and qualify for the Champions Trophy.

What left many wondering was how China, which came close to winning the Champions Trophy (women) in Amsterdam — it lost to Germany in the final — performed so woefully in Madrid to end up tenth.

Talking of the teams from the subcontinent, Pakistan and India, once an impregnable force, are today given up as lost. Sad though this development is, the malaise afflicting the two teams is similar. That Pakistan lost 2-9 to the Netherlands in a Champions Trophy competition exemplified the rot that has set in.

Firing Asif Bajwa and re-inducting the old warhorse Sheikh Shahnaz has not changed the fortunes of Pakistan much. The case of India, which brought in Vasudevan Bhaskaran as the National coach, replacing Rajinder Singh (Jr) after the disastrous Commonwealth Games, is no different. While Pakistan at least managed to win a silver at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and finished fifth in the World Cup, India slumped to sixth in Melbourne and 11th in the World Cup. The silver lining for India, though, was the bronze medal it won at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Kuala Lumpur.

India, which lost to Pakistan in the final at the South Asian Games in Sri Lanka, had a poor Asian Games too. It lost to China in the group stage and finished fifth in the overall standings.

South Korea won the gold, while China took the silver in the men's section at the Asian Games in Doha. In the women's competition, China claimed the gold and Japan the silver. India won the bronze medal.

Minus the bronze at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, Malaysia too had a poor year, finishing ninth in the important World Cup qualifier in Changzhou, where New Zealand finished on top of the podium. The Kiwi men enjoyed a fruitful year.

Among other interesting developments was the FIH's (International Hockey Federation) decision to use technology to help the umpires. The video umpire concept was finally introduced at the men's World Cup, and the system was endorsed at the London Congress in November. The norms for qualifying for the Olympics have also been revised.

For India, it was another year of tension and turmoil. Tragic was the accidental bullet injury to Sandeep Singh on the eve of the World Cup. The incident had a big psychological impact on the team and perhaps contributed to its disastrous result.

As though these were not enough, the IHF sacked veteran Viren Resquinha before the team was to leave for the Asian Games, triggering fresh controversy.

The domestic scene was busy as ever, with the ESPN-PHL in Chandigarh proving to be a runaway success. The National Championship for the Rangaswamy Cup was also well organised in Jalandhar and four other centres, thanks to the sponsorship of Tracer Shoes and Dainik Baskar.