Emphasis on identifying talent

FRIENDSHIP remained the main theme of the hockey series between India and Pakistan as the teams contested with a splendid spirit.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

FRIENDSHIP remained the main theme of the hockey series between India and Pakistan as the teams contested with a splendid spirit. The series, played after five years and won 4-2 by Pakistan, was a huge step in the effort to revive the game in the two countries where hockey players often complain of step-motherly treatment.

The Pakistan team which won the Test series. — Pic. H. SATISH-

If the spectator response was any indication, the game of hockey has a future, provided it is marketed properly. A couple of venues in Pakistan carried tremendous warmth for the players. In response, the opening encounter at Delhi evoked such a poor turn out that Rehan Butt was compelled to make a comment on it. "We expected a packed house (at the National Stadium) but it was disappointing," he said.

Butt was in for a pleasant surprise at Chandigarh and Amritsar when the organisers had a tough time in controlling the crowd. At Chandigarh, the gates were shut a good half an hour before the match and Amritsar witnessed a similar reaction, not to forget Hyderabad. The overflowing stands at these venues confirmed that hockey continues to be a popular sport.

It did not really matter who won. Pakistan had an agenda — of testing its depth — and India, too, was concentrating on experiments in the ranks. The seniors had been rested in some cases and axed in some but the emphasis was clearly on identifying the talent for the future. Essentially, the series was a testing ground for the two teams as Pakistan looked forward to the Champions Trophy. India, gaining a berth following Australia's withdrawal, too, benefited from the series.

Even though the focus was on Sohail Abbas, who achieved the distinction of becoming the highest individual scorer in the history of the game, surpassing Paul Litjens' mark of 267 goals, there was one player, who made a significant mark on the series with his consistency under the bar. For Adrian D'Souza, it was a memorable series and as Dilip Tirkey pointed out, the performance of the goalkeeper was the biggest gain from the eight matches.

The trend of the series became known in the Pakistan leg when the home team won two of the four matches at Karachi (2-1) and Peshawar (3-2). The contest at Peshawar was lively with India nullifying Pakistan's 2-0 lead before succumbing to the mercurial Abbas' accuracy.

The Indians won the hearts of the Pakistani fans with a sterling display in the second match at Quetta, winning 4-1. It was a stunning result. A repeat was in store at Lahore when India led 4-2 with 13 minutes to go but it conceded ground and allowed Pakistan to end up on even terms.

When the hockey caravan travelled to India, the expectations were high. Veteran players from either side were, however, disappointed at the mediocre fare, barring the last encounter at Hyderabad when India's young talent came to the fore with Tushar Khandekar and Prabhod Tirkey giving an outstanding display.

India began with a defeat at Delhi in a poor match. A draw at Chandigarh kept the series alive but Pakistan clinched it with a win at Amritsar. The match was marked by Abbas' grand achievement when his drag flick crashed through the net and left the umpires in a confused state before the technical bench gave its approval.

Abbas' record was the defining moment of the series, a tribute to his consistency and of course his ability to adapt. For a man who struggled to keep his place in the initial stages of his six-year career, Abbas' progress as a key member of the team highlighted his potential. His scoring capacity carried Pakistan to great heights and the Indian fans got a taste of it, too.

Pakistan's Rehan Butt (second right) dribbles past Prabodh Tirkey (right) in the seventh match of the Test series at Amritsar. Butt was one of Pakistan's star performers. — Pic. AP-

What stood out was Abbas' humility. He never forgot to say at the end of the match that "the Indians played very well," and was a crucial link in forging a pleasant bond of friendship between the teams. His respect for the opposition was genuine and it was not a surprise when he was accorded a hero like status by the Indian spectators.

Abbas, Butt, Shakeel Abbasi, Mohammad Shabbir, Mudassar Ali and Kashif Jawad were some of the outstanding performers for Pakistan. In the opinion of manager Samiullah Khan, the team functioned like a unit but he would have preferred the players adopting the Asian style.

From India's point of view, the youngsters gave a good account of themselves. Apart from the towering presence of Adrian under the bar, the most effective contribution came from Viren Rasquinha, the energetic young man who showed that he was a complete player.

India's Arjun Halappa (right) celebrates after scoring a goal as Vikram Pillay rushes to congratulate him in the fourth match at Lahore. The match ended in a draw. -- Pic. AFP-

When Dilip Tirkey was struck on the right cheek by a drag flick from Abbas and was ruled out for the matches at Chandigarh and Amritsar, Rasquinha took on the role of a defender. The transition was smooth and Rasquinha plugged the gaps to thwart the marauding Pakistan forwards. "It was the first time I was playing in defence," revealed the genial Rasquinha.

Among the Indians, Prabhod Tirkey gave a near-flawless performance in the defence and his ability to support the forward line was a bonus. For youngsters such as Arjun Halappa, Adam Sinclair, Khandekar, Sandeep Michael, Hari Prasad and Vivek Gupta the series was an opportunity to showcase their talent. They did not disappoint.

The experience was good for Sandeep Singh, Vikram Pillay, V. S. Vinay, William Xalxo, Harpal Singh and Ignace Tirkey, too, as the team experimented and came good in the last match with a 2-0 verdict. The most memorable moments of the series, apart from Abbas' world record, were the goals by Butt and Khandekar.

Butt's was a breathtaking reverse flick, the sequence of the shot leaving the Indians stunned. "I always wanted to score a goal in India and I'm so happy I could realise my dream," said a beaming Butt. Khandekar's goal came at Hyderabad from a counter attack. Prabodh Tirkey triggered the move and Khandekar finished it in style, crashing the ball through the goalkeeper's legs.

In the last match, the teams played hockey that was close to their heart — short passes and moves on the wings. But the quality of the competition on most other occasions left a lot to be desired. Pakistan was clearly the better team but India could draw immense pride from Adrian D'Souza being declared the `Player of the Series.'

Results of the eight-Test series

24-09-04 Hockey Club of Pakistan, Karachi 1-2 Lost A. Halappa / Sohail, Rehan

27-09-04 General Musa Stadium, Quetta 4-1 Won S. Singh (2), I. Tirkey, T. Khandekar / Sohail

29-09-04 Lala Ayub Stadium, Peshawar 2-3 Lost H. Prasad, A. Halappa / Mudassar, Sohail, Shakeel

01-10-04 National Hockey Stadium, Lahore 4-4 Drawn V. Pillai, S. Singh, A. Halappa,

I. Tirkey/ Sohail (2), A. Ali, Rehan

04-01-04 Dhyan Chand Stadium, New Delhi 1-3 Lost S. Michael / K. Jawwad, Sohail (2)

06-10-04 Sector-42 Stadium, Chandigarh 1-1 Drawn I. Tirkey / Ghazanfar

08-10-04 Guru Nanak Dev Stadium, Amritsar 1-2 Lost A. Halappa / Sohail, Rehan

10-10-04 SPS Gachibowli, Hyderabad 2-0 Won S. Michael, T. Khandekar