Hail Australia!

Peerless...the Australian coach, Ric Charlesworth.-R.V. MOORTHY

On the whole, hockey across the globe remained vibrant in 2011. This is a good augury as we enter the Olympic year, writes S. Thyagarajan.

Any introspection into the bright and dark moments of competitive hockey in 2011 envelops one in an emotional melange. Analysed objectively, the events provoke an amalgam of commendation and condemnation.

A positive assessment will lead to unequivocal approbation for the formidable Aussies guided by the inimitable Ric Charlesworth. In piloting the combination that includes the incomparable contemporary artist — Jamie Dwyer — Charlesworth once again underlined his pre-eminence as a coach with substance.

Charlesworth's contribution needs no elaboration. As player, guide and coach, his ingenuity is exemplary, worthy of emulation.

It is not that the game lacks good coaches. Marcus Weiss of Germany, Jason Lee of England and Van Ass of the Netherlands have all evolved techniques and tactics that reflect their perspicacity. But none of them can match the success ratio of the Australian maestro.

Australia's dominance was absolute, save for the aberration of a loss against Pakistan in the Hockey Australia Cup in Perth. For the fourth time in a row, Australia won the Champions Trophy — which was shifted from New Delhi to Auckland — to cap a profitable year that started with the title triumph in the Azlan Shah Cup, followed by the Oceania competition, the qualifier for the Olympics.

Charlesworth authored the nine-a-side format that mirrored his revolutionary ideas. The inaugural edition in Perth involving Australia, India, Pakistan and New Zealand opened a new vista.

How can success evade a squad that possesses the best assemblage of world-class talent in every segment? The shining star who gave the Aussies a new trajectory in the art of playing was the ubiquitous Jamie Dwyer. Not surprisingly, he was voted the Player of the Year again.

The focus understandably remained in Europe. Germany, the Netherlands, England and Spain cornered attention. The highlight was the European Championship in Monchengladbach, Germany, where the home team triumphed.

Actually Belgium made a good impression in the event. It confirmed its rise in stature by scooping up a place in the next Champions Trophy at the expense of India in Johannesburg.

Spain surpassed all expectations after a dismal performance in the European Cup to enter the title round of the Champions Trophy in Auckland.

The South Africans faced nothing that could be described as challenge to earn their berth for the Olympics. In the Americas, Argentina outwitted Canada in the Pan-American Games in Guadalajara (Mexico) to take an Olympic slot.

Hockey in Asia passed through a pathetic phase of turbulence. Sadly, India was in focus for all the negative reasons. With no end in sight for the factional feuds over the control of hockey, thanks to the unforgivable interference by the International Hockey Federation (FIH) and the Indian Olympic Association, the downslide in interest was apparent.

It is difficult to document the number of visits made by Leandro Negre, the FIH President, to India to meet with the officials of the Sports Ministry, IHF and Hockey India in an effort to resolve the crisis. All of them kept changing their stance, making the problem more complicated. The crisis was accentuated with the entry of Nimbus Sports (through IHF) for launching the World Series Hockey. Conceived to be a never-before event, the WSH projected a cash rich format for the players with a new vision.

The opposition to the project came from Hockey India which was expected. But faced with the prospect of slipping into a legal battle, the FIH indicated that it would not interfere in any way.

The HI had its own agenda in scuttling the WSH, but Nimbus Sports moved ahead at a frenetic pace to rope in as many players as possible. The cream of the national team succumbed to the lure of the unprecedented pay packet and perks. When the Ministry brokered what appeared to be a solution for giving the IHF a possible role in the conduct of hockey affairs in the country, the FIH stepped in. It applied pressure on HI, threatening disaffiliation if two units functioned at the national level. Thereafter, it was ugly rhetoric between the officials. At the end of all the acrimony, the WSH had to be postponed to February 2012.

The appointment of Michael Nobbs of Australia as the National team coach and the victory he charted for India in the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy in Ordos (China) was a silver-lining though. However, the euphoria generated by the victory was short-lived as the National team failed miserably on its tour of Australia and slipped at the final hurdle against Belgium in the Champions Challenge I in Johannesburg.

Among the players who caught the attention was the gangling Rupinderpal Singh, who scored a hat-trick against England in the Azlan Shah tournament. He finished the year with 12 goals. The Asian Champions Trophy projected a new star on the horizon — Yuvaraj Walmiki. Immensely talented, the 19-year old holds great promise.

The situation in Pakistan was not as bad as in India although the administration faced its own share of problems related to the composition of the teams and the attitude of a few senior players. The reported move by a dozen or so players by signing for the WSH caused a spell of consternation.

Overall, the image of Asian hockey was tainted by internal bickering. For those who were fortunate to witness the Champions Trophy on TV in Auckland, the widening chasm between Asia and the rest stood pronounced. Pakistan and Korea fought to avoid the wooden spoon.

On the distaff side, the equations remained the same with the Netherlands and Argentina fighting for honours with challenges emerging from England, New Zealand and China.

With C. R. Kumar moving into the slot as coach, the Indians demonstrated a thin veneer of improvement. But they have miles to go to break into the top 10.

Taken on the whole, 2011 underscored a note of vibrancy across the globe. This is a good augury as we enter the Olympic year.