All about Aussies and Victory

THERE could not have been a more dramatic end to this year's Sultan Azlan Shah Trophy hockey tournament than what one witnessed at Bukit Jalil — the competition acquired a touch of iridescence when Olympic champions Australia matched the mode and methods of the Koreans to win by a golden goal.

S. THYAGARAJAN

The triumphant Australian team with the trophy.-REUTERS

THERE could not have been a more dramatic end to this year's Sultan Azlan Shah Trophy hockey tournament than what one witnessed at Bukit Jalil — the competition acquired a touch of iridescence when Olympic champions Australia matched the mode and methods of the Koreans to win by a golden goal. Appropriately enough, the victory came from the man who answers to the name of Craig Victory.

As the defending champion — and after creating history in Athens — the Aussies were labelled as the favourites. But the team showed real chinks in its deep defence before they could ensure a place in the final. Australia, certainly, was the most experienced team on view. Therefore, many were surprised by the team's initial struggle to put things across. The Aussie form touched the nadir against the lowly Indians who almost held them for a draw, which would have denied Australia a place in the final.

The weak Australian defence stemmed from the absence of Matthew Wells, who had to be sent back because of injury. The suspension of the talented Troy Elder — he preferred the Dutch league to the Azlan Shah tournament and thereby invited the official wrath — also did not help the Australians. The Australian midfield combination of Michael Boyce, Brent Livermore and Jamie Dwyer was outstanding. At no point in the tournament was there a note of slackness from the trio. The attack, on the contrary, showed a streak of disharmony and inconsistency. Mike McCaan, as always, was prominent but the same cannot be said of Grant Schubert and Nathan Eglington. It was Dwyer who always created the openings. However, the Aussies found a reliable penalty corner striker in Luke Doerner.

On the final day, the Aussies plugged all the weak aspects of their game and went full throttle, especially after Korea slotted a 3-1 lead. Even the usually hard-running Koreans were seen tiring when the match stretched into extra-time. What delayed the Aussie victory was the excellent goalkeeping of Dong Sik Yo. And what Craig Victory did will now be part of Aussie folklore.

Craig Victory (centre) of Australia celebrates after scoring the golden goal against South Korea in the final of the 14th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup tournament in Kuala Lumpur. Australia beat South Korea 4-3 in the second half of extra time.-REUTERS

Korea had a great start against Australia in the league. The 3-3 draw not only showed the Koreans to be in a different class but many billed it as the champion combination. The team failed to live up to the assessment only by a whisper.

The Korean approach and athleticism drew instant praise. It is a pity that it went down to Pakistan 2-3 in a tension-packed encounter. Eun Seong Hong, Seung Jang Kang and Jong Ho Seo represent a new breed of strikers in the class of Song Tse Seung. The combination, with the support of a goalkeeper like Dong Sik Yo, can demolish any defence in contemporary hockey.

Pakistan produced some scintillating phases, especially when Rehan Bhatt and Shakeel Abbasi wove through rival defences. The frontline displayed an impressive measure of co-ordination and stickwork. Skipper Muhammad Saqlain in the midfield was striking in every match although he was involved in a bloody incident of injuring Sung Hoon Yoon. The umpires left it as an aberration but the Tournament Director Frank van't Hek invoked his special powers to deliver a one-match suspension.

Though a lot of focus was on Imran Warsi, who is projected as the successor to Sohail Abbas, it was Mohammad Imran who stood out in penalty corner conversions. Goalkeeper Salman Akbar was in good form. Almost everything was smooth sailing including a 2-2 draw with Australia till a tornado came in the form of Malaysia. In what can be termed the upset of the decade, Malaysia, from a goal by Kuhen Shanmuganathan, sent the favoured team crashing to a 0-1 defeat. And what is more, out of the final.

No one should really envy the growing stature of the Kiwis. No combination in recent years has shown the measure of improvement and consistency as the New Zealanders have done. Impeccable in their fundamentals and projecting a perfect picture in the midfield, the Kiwis deserved a higher place than the fourth. Skipper Simon Towns, Blair Hopping and Ryan Archibald formed probably the best midfield in the competition. Phil Burrows and Geredh Brooks in the attack along with Beavan Hari posed a constant threat to the rival defences. The goalkeepers Paul Woolford and Kyle Pontifax performed with a measure of credit.

India's fifth placing was a great disappointment. Under the new coach, Rajinder Singh (Jr.), there was nothing very refreshing either in the work of the frontline or the defence. The game fell into a monotonous pattern, and all segments lacked cohesion. Individually, Dilip Tirkey and the midfielders Ignace and Bimal deserve some commendation. Len Aiyappa began with a great match against South Africa but progressively lost his confidence. At some point he caused more damage to the defence than good. The silver lining is the emergence of the gangling youngster, Rajpal Singh, whose effective role in the wing gave a modicum of thrust to the attack. With the seniors Prabhjot and Deepak not in the best of their form, and with Sandeep Michael playing like a novice along with a fumbling Arjun Halappa, it was Rajpal's unfolding proficiency that injected some confidence. If blooded well, Rajpal is the answer for the outside right berth.

The Indians had a decent game against Pakistan losing 2-3 after Halappa flunked a stroke. It was too late in the day then to revise the ratings. At that point, a sixth place for India was not ruled out, especially after the thrashing against Malaysia. Goalkeeping by Devesh Chauhan swayed between good and bad when compared to the showing of others, even South Africa's Chris Hibbert and Malaysia's Roslan Jamaluddin. But overall, the Indians were let down by its inept forwards.

A sixth place was a bitter pill for Malaysia, especially after beating India and Pakistan. The target was at least a fourth spot that would have served as the team's springboard to qualify for the next World Cup. The energetic Kuhen and his boys strove manfully to accomplish the task but the drubbing against Korea and the reverse against New Zealand pushed them into the area of darkness. The defeat against India in the play-off match for fifth and sixth places only rubbed salt into the wound. The Malaysian displays hovered around the class of Kuhen's penalty corner strikes. The attack never rose to great heights.

Considering the spirit and the system they demonstrated, South Africa's last placing was a surprise. The team was led well by Bruce Jacobs in the midfield, and forwards Emille Smith and Graig Fulton consistently peppered the rival defence as the Australians and the Koreans would testify.

For all the talk of improving the quality of umpiring, the supervision in the tournament was nothing to write home about. In fact, the umpires contributed a lot to the needless and tactless handling of situations. In the match between Malaysia and India on the last day, Pakistani umpire Rana Liaquat decided to reverse the goal that was awarded after consulting with his South African counterpart Zain McLaren, and this caused a furore. In the heat that was generated by the event, the match went out of control leading to a clash between players and ending with red card suspensions for Deepak Thakur and Jiwa Mohan.

The new MHF Secretary, T. Paramalingam, put together another well-organised event.