Asia's future is GREEN

S. THYAGARAJAN

Australia's Grant Schubert, the player of the tournament, spearheaded his country's attack, which was flawless. Here, Schubert is battling for possession with Pakistan's Imran Warsi and Ali Mudassar Khan (right) in the final.-AP

IF ever world hockey were to be a stage where Asia stages its resurgence, the protagonist will most certainly be Pakistan. The fantastic win in the final of the Rabobank International tournament against Olympic champions Australia strengthened the conviction that no other country in the continent has the competence required to raise the level of play and passion to a peak on a regular basis.

Prior to the tournament, Pakistan was written off by critics as weak in the absence of Sohail Abbas — who refused to entertain any request from powers-that-be to change his mind on retirement — and Kashif Jawaad, usually a fierce fighter and scorer. Misgivings surfaced from every quarter, especially from critics at home. For Pakistan, the team's three successive defeats in the four-nation Masters at Hamburg just days before Rabobank event came as though in confirmation of the Doomsday warnings.

Small wonder the Pakistanis were sullen when they arrived in Amsterdam amidst the possibility of action by the FIH on their skipper, Muhammad Saqlain, for causing injuries to rival Australian tackler Craig Victory at Hamburg. Nor was there anything to suggest that the team would press the victory button at all after that insipid goalless draw against Spain. Even a 3-1 win against India was unconvincing forcing Pakistan to a must-win situation — a goal difference of three — against world champions Germany.

It was this mood of desperation that brought out the best from Pakistan. With a scintillating show, Pakistan smashed Germany 5-0 to put paid to Spanish hopes of a place in the final. This one result was enough to realistically hope that Pakistan would give Australia a fight in the final.

Until the end of the first half in the final, the Aussies were supreme and confident, contesting every minute with the verve and vigour that they always exhibit. Their victory sequence of 7-1 against Korea, 4-1 against Netherlands, and 6-2 against England was awesome indeed.

At 3-2 during half-time, the Aussies would not have imagined the tragedy ahead of them. But Pakistan, which displayed remarkable resilience and firepower, outplayed their rival once Rehan Bhatt unleashed that lethal backhander. With Mudassar Ali Khan finding the net and the match winner, the euphoria of Pakistan's triumph reverberated across the sylvan settings of Amstelveen on a glorious Sunday afternoon.

While silencing critics back home and indicating clearly to the international community that it is no pushover, Pakistan is in the right course for a place in the World Cup final and possibly a gold in the Qatar Asian Games, the ticket for the next Olympics in Beijing.

What needs to be commended unequivocally is the spirit that sustains Pakistani hockey. Fortunately, in the absence of Sohail Abbas, there is still belief among the forwards that they can once again be in focus. Rehan Bhatt, Shabir Hussian and Shakeel Abbasi were really praiseworthy. So was the consistent display by skipper Saqlain Mushtaq and Adnan Zakir. Flicker Imran Warsi is developing to fill the void left by Sohail.

All these would pale before the spectacular displays by goal-keeper Salman Akbar. No one was happier about this aspect of Pakistan's win than the former coach, Roelant Oltmans, whose confidence in Salman was always unshakable. In every tie, he brought off a host of saves. The final was no exception.

The level of goal-keeping was high with Bernardino Harrera of Spain, Dong Sik Ko of Korea, Lambert and Mowlan of Australia, Guus Vogels of Netherlands and Jon Ebsworth of England flashing into the picture repeatedly. Even the two Indians, Chauhan and Chettri, impressed, especially the latter when given a chance against England.

For Australia, the outcome is a transient slip up. The team is gunning for the Champions Trophy in Chennai in December. Actually, the Aussies were flawless upfield. Their breaking up in the mid-field in the second half was shocking. The gallant Livermore and Rob Hammond were overpowered by the texture of Pakistan's attack. The 20 goals by Australia in four matches confirmed the efficacy of the frontline where Grant Schubert, Mike McCann and Travis Brooks were sharp and systematic. The sense of opportunism displayed in picking up the rebounds was amazing. Overall, the final defeat was an aberration.

Spain saved the mortification of Europe not finishing with a medal despite having four teams in the fray. Unlike in previous events, the Spaniards were ponderous in mid-field and in attack. Neither Pol Amat nor Eduard Tabau was exemplary. Even Santi Friexa, the drag flicker, was on a low key throughout save for the bronze medal match in which he scored a brace.

Korea's defining moment was the win against the Netherlands, coached by Roelant Oltmans, after the 5-1 opener against England. The chance of making the final however was dashed by Australia. There were none in the class of Song and Kang, but the young Koreans are eyeing a gold at Qatar.

Oltmans put up a brave face despite the Netherlands winning a solitary encounter for the fifth place against Germany. The target for Oltmans was the European Cup and a spot in the World Cup next year. Unlike the Germans, whose fledgling team proved unprofessional, the Dutch were in full strength; everybody from Teun de Nooijer, Karel Klaver, Brouwers, Ronald and Matthijs to the newcomer, Roderick Weusthof, gave it their best. While Teun di Nooijer captured the attention with brilliant body-swerves and stick work, it was the failure of Taeke Takema in penalty corners that affected the Dutch. Takema had two yellow cards in the first two matches. True, he struck three in the classification contest with Germany, but by that time the party was over for the Dutch.

India's seventh placing shows that nothing has improved, other than the hype and needless talking. The anticipated improvement in striking power by the coming together of the trio, Gagan Ajit Singh, Deepak Thakur and Prabhjot Singh, was a non-starter. Their work was sloppy and they were indifferent. Agonisingly, there was no sincere effort worthy enough to motivate the team out of the dull patch.

With the exception of Viren Resquinha, the mid-field work was nothing to be commended. Even the usually well tuned Ignace and Bimal were pedestrian.

While Kanwalpreet Singh strove manfully to prove his return was for the good, surprisingly Dilip Tirkey committed a handful of errors. Chettri proved that he deserves more encouragement than what is getting now.

In retrospect, it was pathetic in many respects, with coach Rajinder Singh (Sr.) unable to do anything that could inspire. Poignantly, it is now back to square one with all the uncertainties remaining before the Champions Trophy. The KNHB organised the tournament with eclat, and did a lot of credit to the sponsor, Rabobank.

Results & placings

Pool A: Pakistan drew with Spain 0-0; bt. India 3-1; bt. Germany 5-0; Spain bt. India 1-0; bt. Germany 4-1; Germany bt. India 2-1; Pool B: Australia bt. Korea 7-1; bt. England 6-2; bt. Netherlands 4-1; Korea bt. England 5-1; bt. Netherlands 2-1; Netherlands drew England 1-1.

7-8 position play-off: India bt. England 2-1; 5-6 play-off: Netherlands bt. Germany 4-0; 3-4 play-off: Spain bt. Korea 2-1; Final: Pakistan bt. Australia 4-3.

Final placings: 1. Pakistan 2. Australia 3. Spain 4. South Korea 5. Netherlands 6. Germany, 7. India 8. England.

Player of the tournament: Grant Schubert (Australia); Promising player: Robert van de Horst (Netherlands).