Exorcising the ghost after five years

It was celebration time. Lap of honour, group photographs, media interviews and much more.

RAKESH RAO

The victorious Indian team which won the women's Asia Cup tournament. — Pic. V. SUDERSHAN-

FOR Surajlata Waikhon, the captain of the Indian women's hockey team, the ghost of the 1999 Asia Cup final was threatening to haunt her. On that occasion, India led Korea by a goal till the dying minutes at the National Stadium but conceded the equaliser to eventually lose by a `golden' goal.

In the 2004 Asia Cup final, India enjoyed a one-goal lead against Japan at the same venue. With less than a minute remaining, Japan forced two penalty corners. In fact the last one was taken after the hooter. But this time, there was no equaliser. As a result, India won its maiden Asia Cup title and with it, earned a place for the 2006 World Cup.

It was celebration time. Lap of honour, group photographs, media interviews and much more. The players deserved every moment of it.

Surajlata said her joy could not be expressed in words. But it was writ large on her face. "I can't tell you how happy I am,'' said Surajlata and continued, "last time we had let it slip but I am so delighted that this time we hung on to our lead. Winning the 2002 Commonwealth title was also memorable but the way we lost all our matches in the 2002 Asian Games was very disappointing. Not getting a place even in the Olympic qualifiers was another setback. But for now, we are all very happy. We avenged those defeats to Korea and Japan and did not let China win. Now we should work to perform creditably in the World Cup.''

Initially backed by none and eventually hailed by all, the Indian girls went through varied emotions during their campaign. The absence of experienced players like Tingongleima Chanu, Sita Gosain, Pritam Siwach and Manjinder Kaur obviously affected the team. Jyoti Kullu and Mamta Kharab were returning from injury-forced lay-offs and were far from their best.

Jasjeet Kaur scoring India's match-winner beating the hapless Japanese defenders, Kato Akemi (left) and Miura Keiko during the final. -- Pic. V. SUDERSHAN-

In such a scenario, the team did not inspire much confidence. But looking better with every result, India stopped at nothing and raced away with the gold. What made the Indian triumph possible was some fine work under the bar from Helen Mary. Defenders Suman Bala, Sumrai Tete, Subhadra Pradhan came good when it mattered. In the midfield, Surajlata was the pick, while forwards Saba Anjum, Shanggai Chanu, Adline Kerketa, Jyoti and Jasjeet Kaur were good in patches. However, Suman Bala's penalty corner conversion left much to be desir<147,1,7>ed. Before the eight-team competition began, Asian Games winner and Champions Trophy finalist China was seen as the team to beat. But once the players' lists were ready, it became clear that China and Korea had not sent their best players. Korea's Kang Na Young was the only surviving member of the team that thrashed India 5-0 in the Asian Games. Though China had the services of nine players who were part of the squad that played the Champions Trophy final against Australia in December 2003, the leading members of the team were not around.

Japan was an exception and from the way it played, no one was in any doubt about its abilities to win in the given field. Twelve members of the team that beat India twice in the Asian Games were in this squad.

Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Singa<147,2,1>pore and Sri Lanka were never expected to pose any serious threat to the semi-finalists. In fact, none came close to changing the script.

India, after a none-too-impressive 4-2 start against Malaysia, did well to hold China 1-1. Clearly overawed by China's reputation, India never really believed that it could actually win. But as the match progressed, it was India which came close to scoring than China. Surajlata later admitted, "we played well against China but we should have won.'' Still, the result enhanced the self-esteem of the girls and it showed in the remaining matches.

When India faced Kazakhstan, the host needed to win by a margin that was two goals more than that of China's against Malaysia, to head the pool on goal difference. When China completed a 7-1 victory, India still had 30 minutes in hand to do the needful. India won 8-0 and topped the pool.

Topping the group ahead of China was another reason for the Indian girls to be pleased. They now awaited the result of the match between Japan and Korea to ascertain their rival in the semi-final.

Shanggai Chanu tries to stop Korea's Oh Sun Soon during the first semi-final, which India won. — Pic. V. SUDERSHAN-

Japan and Korea had scored huge victories over Singapore and Sri Lanka to ensure the semi-final berths. When Japan pumped in four goals in the first half against Korea, another one-sided match appeared to be in the offing. But Korea, after missing a penalty stroke, scored three goals but lost by the narrowest of margins.

However, the semi-finals turned out to be lop-sided. Korea simply cracked under the sustained Indian assault. Trailing by a goal, Korea twice came very close to equalising but goal-line saves by the Indian defence put paid to their efforts. In the second half, India scored four goals to win 5-0 and showed that it was ready to take on Japan.

Japan, too, did its reputation no harm in beating China 6-2. The goals of this match were clearly of a superior quality than the ones in the India-Korea match.

Japan's Kormori Tomomi (18) celebrates after scoring a goal against China, in the semi-finals. -- Pic. V. SUDERSHAN-

Once the final result came India's way, all eyes turned to coach M. K. Kaushik.

For Kaushik, the title was the third major one of his career as a coach. He was the coach of the men's National team that won the 1998 Asian Games gold in Bangkok. Last year, he coached the women's team that completed the formality of winning the Afro-Asian Games title and now the Asia Cup.

In spite of being understandably excited, Kaushik remained pragmatic. "We had worked for about eight months. But to be among the top six teams in the world, we still have some distance to cover. Like India, teams from China and Korea, too, were not at full-strength. The Japanese were the strongest and we did well to beat them. Now that the World Cup berth is assured, we must plan ahead and give our girls plenty of international competitions. Like the men's team, if the Indian women's team can also get strong corporate support, this team can be groomed into a world-better.''