Aussie flavour to Indian curry

Michael Nobbs, India's newly appointed chief hockey coach, has done everything right so far.-K. MURALI KUMAR

Michael Nobbs deserves to be served with a larger pool of players to choose from. The significance of India's Asian Champions Trophy victory lies in identifying our virtues and weaknesses. It also calls for enlarging the scope to maintain the activated tempo. It is not easy. But do we have an alternative, muses S. Thyagarajan.

Michael Nobbs could not have dreamt of a better start. In less than two months after taking over as the chief hockey coach, Nobbs succeeded in shepherding a batch of youngsters to the top of the podium at the inaugural men's Asian Champions Trophy.

Grave misgivings surfaced before the team's departure to the Chinese city of Ordos. The squad was perceived as immature, inexperienced and inadequate.

Added to Nobbs' discomfiture was the continuing administrative turbulence, heightened by the suspension slapped on two seniors, Sardara Singh and Sandeep Singh, for an act of alleged indiscipline.

Anyone facing great expectations from a huge fraternity to perform would have been shaken. But Nobbs is cast in a different mould. His typical Aussie spirit of fortitude stood the test of troubled times. He moulded the spirit, skill and exuberance of the youth under him into an attacking formation, inculcating in them a sense of confidence.

The response was magnificent. The 5-0 win in the opening match against China was an eye-opener. The fervour generated from this outcome probably bears testimony to the team ending the championship without a defeat in six matches, including the final.

To term the team as young is inappropriate. It was a happy fusion of youth, in a generous mixture, with a set of seasoned stalwarts. Goalkeeper Chetri, midfielders Gurbaz and Ignace Tirkey, and skipper Rajpal have all been around for years.

What really needs to be portrayed with a veneer of eloquence is the talent and temperament shown by youngsters like Yuvaraj Walmiki, Danish Mujtaba, Roshan Minj, Ravi Pal and Rupinder Pal Singh.

A special tribute to goal-keeper Sreejesh is not out of place. His intrepid saves in the penalty shoot out in the final swayed the scales in India's favour in the suspense-filled final minutes after the teams were locked goal-less in regulation time and in the extra period.

Physical fitness is an area of concern. A study of the results shows that India flagged when forced to play on the second consecutive day. The draws against Japan, Malaysia and even Pakistan confirmed it. Heartening however was the manner in which the team rallied from deficit in the matches against Malaysia and Pakistan to stave off defeat.

A mood of euphoria will be sought to be generated out of this victory. Nothing can be more harmful. The triumph gives us just a glimmer of hope. It must be evaluated in the right perspective. It is a window of opportunity. The outcome emphasised again the wealth of talent available, but it is crying for recognition and imaginative canalisation. Only a well designed programme can pave the way for stability.

Fortunately, the players have not been drawn into the vortex of the confrontation ruining the administration. So far, they have stayed away from the canker that is eating into the vitals of governance. But it is unlikely to continue for long. A flare up in this area will vitiate the atmosphere even more.

For the warring cabals seeking to gain administrative control, the Ordos victory comes as a chance to re-look, reform and resurrect hockey's image at home and abroad. Given the rigid stance by the groups an amiable solution looks beyond the compass for the present.

The effort at rebuilding should start at the base of this victory. That a lot more needs to be done goes without saying. On top of the agenda is to work ways and means to come back into the Olympic fold in London. Everything needs to be planned for broad-basing the pool and optimise the levels of fitness, skills and strategy before the qualifier begins to roll in New Delhi.

A great opportunity of playing the real superpowers in the FIH Champions Trophy has been lost thanks to the bungling of an inept administration. Now, the team has to qualify for the event from the Champions Challenge in Johannesburg in November-December. A four-nation event in Perth is another testing ground.

Nobbs has reasons to be pleased with what he has accomplished within a short period. The outcome at Ordos will undoubtedly enhance his image and credentials. But can one swallow make a summer? He is mandated to build back the edifice brick by brick in the next five years. Nobbs is alive to the factors that he has to confront with in an imperfect system that abounds in traps and shackles.

The Ordos triumph underscored the nation's faith in youth. It is for the selectors to weigh the pros and cons of persisting with or recalling the veterans. A player cannot be inducted simply on the basis of seniority. A majority of those in the injured list are seasoned campaigners.

How many are fit enough now to integrate with the youngsters who have proved their mettle must be factored by the selectors logically. No player can now take his place for granted. Is it not the best time to ease out out-of-form and recalcitrant veterans?

It must also be stressed that the line separating the top four teams in Asia is thin. Any Asian level competition proves this without ambiguity. India requires to test its mettle on a new plane, locking horns with European and Australian outfits. Even the Kiwis humbled India as never before in the Azlan Shah tournament.

Granting that the Ordos victory has triggered a hint of resurgence, the battle to improve ratings is far more challenging. To achieve this goal there has to be a greater focus in the spotting and training of young practitioners.

The junior programmes, which were in the limbo for a few years, now need to be galvanized with at least five to six junior level competitions every year. It was a pity that India went unrepresented in the Under-18 Asian Championships at Singapore recently.

Michael Nobbs deserves to be served with a larger pool of players to choose from.

The significance of the Asian Champions Trophy lies in identifying our virtues and weaknesses. It also calls for enlarging the scope to maintain the activated tempo. It is not easy. But do we have an alternative?

* * * PRAISE POURS IN

Ajitpal Singh: A superb achievement by a very young side. Remember the team was without four or five senior players and that can mean a lot. But the players have performed exceedingly well and have proved that nothing can stop you if you play like a team. Some people were pulling in different directions, but once discipline was given the priority things fell in place. The players must have listened to their coaches and the seniors and so won this title by remaining unbeaten right through the competition. The young players have shown promise and they need to be supported in a big way. I am sure they will grow in confidence and if they can carry on like this they will be a force to reckon with in world hockey. It is important that they keep their feet on the earth. Success at an young age needs to be handled with care and I want to remind the team that tougher tasks lie ahead. The most important thing is to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. Along with the players, it is important for us to recognise the efforts of the support staff. They also have worked hard behind the scenes. Let them also enjoy this victory but not lose their focus.

Ashok Kumar: A great win because of the bad circumstances that preceded the departure of the team. The tough times helped the team to jell and achieve the desired results. I am reminded of 1975 (World Cup title win) when similar issues confronted the team and how it emerged victorious. More than what the administration does, it is important to see how the players behave and react. In my opinion, this is a significant victory. The team will only grow from here and it is time for all to grab the opportunity. The team has set an example. A new look, vibrant energy and innovation in the ranks by the coach are all good signs for the team's future. Two drawn matches against Pakistan show the team's mettle and the mental aspect stands highlighted by the display during the tie-breaker. Winning against Pakistan is always sweet and this should help the players in the long run. I am sure the authorities would also learn a few lessons from this feat. Players are talented and raring to go. All they need is moral and financial support from the administration. Hockey is not dead in India.

Zafar Iqbal: It is a great victory! The new coach has made a fine beginning and this confidence should help him and the players. They now would have greater faith in each other's abilities. Though young, the team is mature in terms of performance. They have done well for the game and extremely well for the future of hockey in India. The best of supporters were losing hope, but not anymore, I am sure. My only request is the team should not become complacent. The game has been revived in the minds of the people and that is how it should remain. Hockey needs support from the masses and it is for the media to maintain the tempo with proper coverage of the team's achievements. Hockey should do justice to its National game status and this can only come from regular victories like these. The fact that the team remained unbeaten speaks for the fantastic preparation by the players. That India did not lose to Pakistan in two matches is a great sign. The road to Olympics is full of challenges. This victory is just the first step.

Mohammad Shahid: Happy times for Indian hockey. A win, as rare as this, is worth cherishing and I am deighted for the players. I know how the hockey fans would have prayed and there is no doubt that this is the best time for the game to come to terms with reality. And the reality is that there is a future for hockey in India. It is just that the players and the administrators need to take stock of the situation and move forward. I never doubted the talent and this is proof enough. A benchmark has now been set for the next two years or so. This path leads to the Olympics and the team should make the best of this inspiring performance. Nothing can stop this team as it has the will and this combination looks promising. I am optimistic as far as this team is concerned.

V. Baskaran: It is a great victory and should give Aussie coach Michael Nobbs great encouragement. His faith in the youth has paid off. However, we must concentrate more on conversion of penalty corners. The rate of conversion, I understand, was poor. It is here that the management should consider inducting Sardara and Sandeep. Both of them are tremendously experienced since they play a lot of hockey in Europe.

Vijay Lokapally & S. Thyagarajan