Expert comments

JAGBIR SINGH

Indian hockey is looking up. When compared with the teams in the last few years, I would say that the current Indian team has better chances at the World Cup.

The youngsters have proved themselves and the forward-line has worked very well. The combination of the forward-line and the midfield has delivered results in the form of a medal at the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament. It may not be a great achievement, but we have to remember that seven of the World Cup-playing countries were there in Kuala Lumpur and winning a medal was creditable.

This Indian team is looking confident, and we are fortunate to have the services of the Australian physio Derek Knox. It does make a world of difference to have someone like him in the team. The combination of the coaches has also given good results. Everyone is working towards the betterment of the team. Most importantly, the team is focussed.

My main concern is about the practice matches. It is important to play the right teams with the right intensity so that the rustiness goes and the Indian team is ready to take up the challenges in the World Cup. We have to overcome our mistakes in the practice matches, for we can't afford to make them in the World Cup.

Of course, our focus would be on playing the semi-finals. We have to plan match by match. My worry is not the top two teams like Germany and Holland in our group. We have to try to share points with them and win the other matches. Then, leave it to the top two teams to fight it out.

There is no point in putting pressure on yourself by trying to get three points from every match, or trying to score goals in all the matches. It is just not possible.

(As told to Kamesh Srinivasan) * * * DHANRAJ PILLAY

PTI

Vasudevan Baskaran is lucky for Indian hockey. Teams have done well under him. When he was the chief coach for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, we almost made the semi-final.

Earlier, in Milton Keynes in 1997, India, coached by Baskaran, entered the final of the Junior World Cup. The coach and the players got along well on both the occasions as the Indian teams played to their strengths.

Baskaran also coached India at the 1998 World Cup (Utrecht) and watched the 2002 World Cup (Kuala Lumpur), so he must have a fair idea of the happenings in the Indian camp and what really went wrong during these two campaigns.

Utrecht '98 was a dreadful experience for me personally, as our team played like a bunch of amateurs. In Kuala Lumpur coach Cedric D'Souza was replaced midway by C. R. Kumar. This could have happened only in India.

Baskaran will have realised by now, from experience and observation, that Indian hockey teams have never done well when coaches imposed their own thinking on them. He must be aware of the importance of taking the senior players into confidence when deciding the formation and strategy. A coach can get the best out of his boys if seen more as an elder brother and guide. This has been my experience in four successive World Cups — Lahore 1990, Sydney 1994, Utrecht 1998 and Kuala Lumpur 2002).

I don't know what type of training is on under Baskaran now, but hockey has become incredibly fast from the days of the Sydney Olympics when he was around. His coaching assistants like Harender Singh are in touch with the game and accustomed to handling internationals in the Indian Airlines and junior India teams. A physical trainer from Australia, Derek Knox has joined the World Cup squad and feedback from friends in the team is positive so far.

India should not be swayed by its performance in the Azlan Shah tournament. Teams such as Holland, Germany and Spain use such events as practice games and will pose a different challenge at the World Cup. Holland's nine goals against Pakistan is an indication of the levels to which these top teams can take their game when the situation warrants. Five or six of the goals were created by the experience Teun de Nooijer.

The Indian team lacks playmakers of such calibre and experience. We need goal-getters, forwards able to attack with pace and in numbers, supported by the schemers. India needs to play the type of hockey coach Rajinder Singh managed to get out of Gagan Ajit Singh, Prabhjot Singh and Deepak Thakur, who converted passes from Baljit Dhillon on the left and me on the right. We rocked the hockey world during this phase. I feel the current Indian team owes a lot to Rajinder for the opportunity to play in the 2006 World Cup.

India has players who have the experience of playing in the Dutch League, like the crack forward Gagan who found it difficult to replicate their Dutch club form at the Azlan Shah tournament due to shortage of passes. Normally used to roaming the circle, looking to trap, swerve and hit long passes on the run, Gagan was seen moving back to the centre-line for balls and then tried to dribble past three or four rivals to get to the goalmouth. It is physically not possible to take such a load and remain effective, considering the pace at which the game is played today.

At the World Cup, India should take one match at a time, starting with the young, tough Germany whom it plays first. Going by the team's form in the Champions Trophy recently, it is tough work for India.

(As told to Nandakumar Marar) * * * MUKESH KUMAR

G. KRISHNASWAMY

This team has a very good chance of putting up an exceptional performance. What amazes me is the high level of fitness. Credit should go to the Australian fitness trainer Derek Knox, and Ravi Kanakamadala. After such a rewarding coaching camp, the onus is now on the players to perform.

Baskaran is not one of those coaches who put undue pressure on the players. He gives plenty of freedom. He doesn't tamper with the players' natural style.

Essentially, the players should be wary immediately upon resumption after the break, and in the dying minutes. Mistakes in these two crucial phases have proved costly for the team in recent years. The only thing that I am looking for is variations in short-corner conversions — direct or indirect. I did discuss this point with assistant coach Harendra Singh, and he told me that the focus during the team's training was on this.

Our strong point is the defence manned by Dilip Tirkey and Kanwalpreet Singh, and goalkeeper Adrian D'Souza. With Vinay and Ignace in the half-line and Viren Resquinha as centre-half, the forward-line, spearheaded by Gagan Ajit Singh, should provide the thrust.

Gagan is back from a nearly two-year slump. But he is a natural player with a strong shoulder inside the `D'. This is where the speedy and skilful Arjun Halappa should feed him. Gagan should not only score the odd goal to pile on the pressure, but force penalty corners too.

It appears that the Indian team will adopt 4-4-2-1 formation, but I would personally prefer to play with an attacking centre-half who will double up as the fifth forward. But the biggest worry is that we Indians tend to get demoralised very quickly after an early deficit. This should be avoided. For this, the entire team has to play like a unit and not be individualistic.

We have to make optimum use of the rolling substitution rule. We must ensure that players are changed every 10 minutes to keep them fresh. It is not necessary to persist with a player in a particular position by virtue of his stature. This is where the Europeans are different. Maybe, the Indians would have been better off if they had big-time match practice instead of playing local teams in the camps, for you cannot make an objective assessment of the improvements of the players from these one-sided matches.

For me, Australia is the favourite although Holland won the Champions Trophy. The Aussies rely on all-round game unlike the Dutch, who predominantly bank on penalty-corner conversions. You can't expect to win every time by converting penalty corners.

The Indian team looks capable of delivering the goods. Let us hope for a new beginning.

(As told to V. V. Subrahmanyam)