Aussies too hot to handle

S. THYAGARAJAN

ON introspection, one is mystified by the inconsistency and unpredictability of an Indian hockey team. The recipe of a young team, composed mainly from the bunch that lifted the Junior World Cup at Hobart, a new coach and the background of a disaster which was the last World Cup at Kuala Lumpur, did not exactly bring cheer all round in the twin quadrangulars played at Adelaide and Melbourne last month. This is not to ignore the positive points, like the twin victories against the South Koreans, our bete noire in international tournaments since the mid-Eighties.

Conceived by Hockey Australia as part of the exercise to firm up the Aussie squad for the Commonwealth Games to defend the gold and also to regain the Champions Trophy at Cologne in August-September, the twin events served as a dress rehearsal for the national coach, Barry Dancer, to identify a winning combination. That the wily Aussie succeeded in accomplishing the task with a sense of elation cannot be easily obliterated.

The Australian team which won the four-nation hockey tournament.-S. THYAGARAJAN

Missing a trophy triumph at the World Cup in Kuala Lumpur against Germany in March, the Aussies began the reconstruction for the challenges ahead in right earnest. A large group of 24 was named for the twin events which the Aussies won without a trace of trouble. They enjoyed the luxury of fielding different teams for the tournaments, however retaining the nucleus for both. A strong mid-field contributed significantly to the triumphs what with the frontline featuring stars like Craig Victory and Mike McCann coming good in most of the seven matches. The squad at Adelaide included the newcomer Nathan Eglington who was an instant success.

The Aussies had a stronger combination for the Melbourne leg, which included a final, by inducting the Olympic and World Cup veterans Jaime Dwyer, Brent Livermore and Troy Elder. Initially unimpressive, the combination struck the peak in the final, smashing India by a tennis-like score of 6-0 after being stretched to 2-1 in the earlier encounter.

A consolation for India, if one needs that, was the twin victories against South Korea. In all, India won three of the seven matches, the third coming against Malaysia at Adelaide. The team however lost to the same squad at Melbourne after leading 2-1 at half-time. It is this undulating form that left one wondering what to predict out of this team. Coach Rajinder Singh believes the main grey area for the squad is the negative approach practised for quite some time. He says it may take a bit of time to get the players into a new line of thinking and play attacking hockey that pleases the eye of the beholder. Summing up, Rajinder Singh says there were many noticeable areas of strength - such as the mid-field for instance - which must be improved with the right inputs.

The Indians did display that sporadic dash of brilliance when some spectacular field goals were scored. They were also striking in the manner in which they recovered to beat Korea at Adelaide, trailing 1-3 at half-time. Even in the first match, the team matched the Aussies move for move in the opening half but failed in the second to slip to a 0-4 defeat. Significantly, India finished as runner-up in both the events.

Dilip Tirkey and the set of defenders around him deserve full praise. They were pushed to the ground only because of the poor consistency shown by the frontline that frittered away chances galore in all the matches. Dilip Tirkey produced an inspiring performance in every game. Striking in the mid-field was Ignace Tirkey at left half and Vikram Pillay in the centre. Equally praiseworthy was Bimal Lakra. The coach leaned heavily on Jugraj Singh for deep defence at the expense of the more seasoned Dinesh Nayak. At some points, this preference sounded a bit illogical, especially when the rival forwards were threatening to open up. Jugraj however scored three goals in penalty corners. Devesh Chauhan was heroic in a couple of matches but the pressure points in the final were too many for him to handle.

Gagan Ajit Singh scored four lovely goals to justify his leadership in the attack but, taken on the whole, the frontline did no credit for its potential and lacked thrust. Much was expected of Deepak Thakur and Prabhjot Singh, but neither sparkled. Daljit Singh Dhillon was good in patches and executed penalty strokes with a touch of panache. Tejbir Singh, often used as a substitute, figured prominently on the wing. The coach was handicapped by the persistent neck-injury to Samir Dad who could not be fielded in a single match. Iqbal Singh also proved a misfit.

A commendable point that needs to be stressed here is the fitness of the players. A lot of credit in achieving this measure of strength in a vital area should go to the unassuming Sampath Kumar of the Services. Incidentally, he was also the trainer for the World Cup junior team at Hobart. But sadly, he is the only one yet to be recognised for his admirable work by the Government, which honoured all the players and coaches with cash awards.

Without Seung Song, the Koreans were not in full strength but provided tough opposition for all. They were peeved, to some extent, by the umpiring against the Aussies at Adelaide. So dejected were the players that they stood still when Nathan Eglington went on a sally to score. Persuaded by the coach and the threat of punishment looming large, they continued but refused to accept the Aussie offer to withdraw the goal.

Skipper Kang was the key player for the Koreans and, expectedly Yeo Woon Koon came off well in penalty corners. Jong Ha was quick and thrustful on the wing, while Shin Seok was a tower of strength in the deep defence with goal-keeper Lim.

With a substantial number of World Cuppers staying away and the top two, Mirnawan and Maninderjit on the retired list, the Malaysians were anything but strong. Yet, the players showed the gumption and carried out the ideas of the coach, Paul Lissek, to establish some memorable moments, like charting a win over India.

On focus always was the gangling Kuhen Shanmuganathan, along with Keevin Raj, Gobinathan and Chairl Anwar. Some of the goals by Chairl Anwar underscored the essence of opportunism. The Malaysians fought hard on the final day, but lost ultimately to the Koreans on a golden goal.

Umpiring came for a bit of the usual debate after the tiff the Koreans had with the neutral umpire from New Zealand, Tim O'Connor.

But there was a general level of satisfaction and at least the three Asian umpires, Sokhi from India, Ramaniswaram from Malaysia and Jong Oh Woo from Korea had enough exposure and performed their part with a touch of confidence and assurance.

The results: Adelaide:

Australia beat India 4-0; beat Korea 4-2; beat Malaysia 6-2; India beat Malaysia 3-0; beat Korea 4-3; Korea beat Malaysia 2-0.

Table of points (read as played, won, drawn, lost, goals for, goals against and points): Australia 3- 3-0-0-14-4-9: India 3-2-0-1-7-7-6; Korea 3-1-0-2-7-8-3; Malaysia 3-0-0-3-2-11-0.

Melbourne:

Australia beat Korea 3-1; beat Malaysia 4-1; beat India 2-1; India lost to Malaysia 2-3; beat Korea 2-0; Korea beat Malaysia 3-1.

Table of points (read as played, won, drawn, lost, goals for, goals against and points): Australia 3-3-0-0-9-3-9; India 3-1-0-5-5-3; Korea 3-1-0-2-4-6-3; Malaysia 3-1-0-2-5-9-3. (India moved into the final on goal difference of 0, against minus two by Korea and minus four by Malaysia).

For third place: Korea 3 (Yew Woon Koon 3,) beat Malaysia 2 (Baharuddin Razi, Kuhen Shanmuganathan).

Final: Australia 6 (Mike McCann 2, Troy Elder, Jaime Dwyer 2, Aaron Hopkins) beat India 0.

Player of the final: Jaime Dwyer. Best scorer: Mike McCann.