Aussies outstanding

Beaten but not disgraced... the Indian women's hockey team that finished runner-up in the Asian Cup in Bangkok. It lost 3-5 to China in the final.-AP

Two Champions Trophy tournaments, five continental competitions, two World Cups for juniors, a string of challengers and qualifiers kept the tempo at a high octave through the year. But at the end of it all, the power equations remained unaltered save for a few surprises, like England winning the European Championship, writes S. Thyagarajan.

Eventful as ever, competitive hockey enlarged its dimensions and depth and enhanced its international profile and technical excellence in 2009. The events that unfolded had the elements of incandescence, entrapping the enthusiasts in an emotional melange. Pity of pities that India was isolated for the major part, entangled as it was in a set of negativities arising from appalling mismanagement of the administrative apparatus.

Two Champions Trophy tournaments, five continental competitions, two World Cups for juniors, a string of challengers and qualifiers kept the tempo at a high octave through the year. At the end of it all, the power equations remained unaltered save for a few surprises, like England winning the European Championship.

It isn’t difficult to identify the outstanding team of 2009 — the vote goes to Australia, coached by the stalwart, Ric Charlesworth. The Australian men not only left their imprint as the best in the region but also signed off in style with a fantastic win in the Champions Trophy in Melbourne, where, for the first time, the FIH (International Hockey Federation) permitted one TV referral for each team in a match. Australia’s 10th title-victory in the tournament underscored its scale of consistency. Small wonder, Jamie Dwyer of Australia was adjudged the best player of the world.

Interestingly, the emergence of New Zealand as a major player not only in the Oceania group but also the world could not have been better exemplified than by its twin title victories, in the World Cup qualifier at home and the Champions Challenge in Salta, Argentina, in December. The outcome confirmed New Zealand’s participation in both the World Cup (New Delhi) and the Champions Trophy (Monchengladbach) in 2010.

Equally impressive was the showing of the New Zealand’s women’s team which cut short the Aussie dominance in the Oceania group by winning the qualifier for the World Cup in Rosario, Argentina, in 2010.

While the victories of South Africa and Canada in the continental events somewhat confirmed the trend, the triumph recorded by England against Germany in the final of the European Cup in Amstelveen (the Netherlands) made the critics sit up in amazement. The English squad, led admirably by veteran Barry Middleton and supported well by Richard Mantell, Ashley Jackson, Ben Hawes and James Tindall, lowered the colours of the World Champion, scoring a 5-3 win. The home team had to be satisfied with a bronze. The top four — England, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain — made the grade for the next World Cup.

The best result for Germany in 2009 came at the men’s junior World Cup, jointly organised by Malaysia and Singapore. For the first time the tournament had 20 teams in the fray. Germany defeated the Netherlands 3-1 in the final to win the gold, while Australia defeated New Zealand 4-1 to claim the bronze medal.

Notwithstanding the presence of stalwarts such as Teun de Nooijer and Taeke Taekema — the top scorer in the Champions Trophy — the Dutchmen failed to match the showing of their women. The bronze medal in the Nations Cup and the fourth place in the Champions Trophy in Melbourne showed that the Dutch squad was slipping down the ladder. The same can be said of Spain which now ceases to be the force that it was under Maurits Hendriks. This was evident from the fact that Spain finished fourth in the European Cup and fifth in the Champions Trophy.

In Asia, Korea held the centre stage, winning the Asia Cup against Pakistan in Kuantan to ensure its place in the World Cup. Korea also performed beyond expectations in the Champions Trophy to claim the bronze medal. Nam Hyun-woo and Seo Jong-ho figured among the best scorers in Melbourne.

There were perceptible indications of Pakistan moving up despite the administrative imbroglio back home. Finishing second in the Asia Cup meant Pakistan had to win the qualifiers in Lille (France) to book its berth for the 2010 World Cup. The team pitched in beautifully, thanks to the triumphant return of Sohail Abbas, and finished on top to seal its berth for New Delhi. Pakistan also finished runner-up in the Champions Challenge in Salta.

A noteworthy event was the elevation of China to the top 10 in the men’s rankings, two places ahead of India, at the end of the year. The confidence gained from the victory in the Azlan Shah tournament did not help India in any way. On the contrary, the team tumbled from one disaster to another. It finished fifth in the Asia Cup and lost to Pakistan in the tournaments that mattered.

Palpably jaded and going down in a whirlpool of controversies, India figured in the news for all the wrong reasons.

The birth pangs of the unresolved formation of the new administrative body and the appointment of Jose Brasa of Spain as India’s coach generated heated debate.

India’s tours of Europe, Argentina and Canada helped Brasa study the limited material available, but the coach was unhappy with the Government’s apathy towards procuring sophisticated gadgets for coaching. There were even reports in the media of dissidence within the team and Sandeep Singh’s brushes with Brasa on the issue of captaincy.

In contrast, the Indian women’s team performed better, winning the Champions Challenge II in Kazan and picking up the silver medal in the Asia Cup in Bangkok. Skipper Surinder Kaur, dependable strikers Jasjeet Handa, Rani Rampha and Saba Anjum, mid-fielders Asanta Lakra and Mamta Kharbab, supported by Subhadra Pradhan — the player of the Asia Cup 2009 — were prominent in India’s showing in every tournament. The coach, M. K. Kaushik, needs special mention for the way he has handled the team. It is a pity that the junior outfits, men and women, flopped, finishing ninth in the World Cup.

A moment of pride for the umpiring fraternity in India came when Satinder Sharma earned a golden whistle during the World Cup qualifier in Invercargill.

Going by how events panned out in 2009, a vibrant agenda appears to be on the cards in 2010.