India back to winning ways

CALL it a regeneration, a resurgence or even a renaissance, the reality is that India identified itself as a threat to everyone in competitive hockey and it came out clearly in the twin editions of the Hockey Australia Men's Challenge at Perth and Sydney.

S. THYAGARAJAN

India's Prabjot Singh has just scored one of India's five goals, beating Australia's goalkeeper Stephen Lambert, in the final. — Pic. AP-

CALL it a regeneration, a resurgence or even a renaissance, the reality is that India identified itself as a threat to everyone in competitive hockey and it came out clearly in the twin editions of the Hockey Australia Men's Challenge at Perth and Sydney. A fortnight of exotic hockey exhibited by the Indians, reminiscent of those glorious days when the nation reigned supreme, culminated in the conquest of Australia in an enthralling final on a salubrious afternoon at the Sydney International Stadium, before wildly cheering supporters.

What struck those fortunate to witness the progress of the tour was India displaying a brand, which amalgamated the aesthetics, adeptness and athleticism to overpower such rivals as Australia and Pakistan.

Understandably, there was a wave of euphoria across the Indian cities as the news of a 5-3 victory spread. Frontpage pictures of Dhanraj waving the Indian tri-colour atop the bund at the stadium, before ecstatic supporters, were no doubt emotionally fulfilling.

Yet, the need to temper this mood of well-being with a more pragmatic assessment cannot be overstressed. After all, the twin editions were the first step for the competitors towards their preparation for the Champions Trophy at Amstelveen in August and, ultimately, the Olympics at Athens. Australia fielded two teams made up of 24 players and Pakistan, the arch-rival, was without its three best players, Sohail Abbas, Wassem and Nadeem, sidelined as a disciplinary action. Injuries to two key players, Mathew Wells and skipper, Paul Gaudoin, rendered the Aussie defence palpably ineffective in the final.

Coach Rajinder Singh will have to weigh these factors in evaluating — in totality — the outcome of the sojourn that was rewarding in many ways. On the positive side, it must be admitted that the players have gained confidence in their ability to live up to pressure situations as they did in snapping a superb drawn game 3-3 at the picturesque town of Wollongong against Australia, Igance Tirkey coming up with a splendid rebounder about 25 seconds from the hooter.

The road to success after a poor 0-2 start against Australia at Perth was built solidly on defence, more accurately, the mid-field, the soul and substance of competitive hockey today. India has found the right mix in this area in which two players are remarkably proficient. Bimal Lakra takes the top spot in this assessment. Crafty and composed, he was never beaten comprehensively by any attacker. His interceptions were impeccable and so were his free hits that paved the way for openings, which the frontliners capitalised. Equally energetic was left-half Ignace Tirkey, who never showed a hint of inhibition in engaging himself in a tackle.

Viren Resquinha made a very good impression as the skilful mid-fielder, displaying assurance. Although he did not get much time on the field, Vikram Pillay was another who attracted attention. The recall of Baljit Singh Saini naturally evoked a mixed reaction. While the coach showed a lot of confidence in this veteran's expertise and experience, there were periods when he looked a bit slow to match the reflexes of his younger colleagues. True, his passing with Dhillon and Gagan proved effective in some games.

A special tribute however is due to the strapping Jugraj Singh. Whether it is in hitting penalty corners — the first goal he scored in the 5-3 triumph against Australia was classic — or in impeding the movements of the rival forwards, he was the cynosure. The manner in which he carried the coach's strategy of blunting the pivot, Brent Livermore, in the final at Perth, was exemplary. His penchant for rough and ready methods however needs to be curbed.

It would be the height of injustice to leave out the work of the deep defence and goal-keeping. Dilip Tirkey compelled attention for his touch and temperament. His competence in interception and hitting in those low, carpet driven penalty corners is well known, and he showed that mettle convincingly. One of the highlights was the improvement shown by Kanwalpreet Singh, who is maturing into an excellent defender. When the occasion demanded, Devesh Chauhan rose to his full stature, effecting some good saves but the percentage of conceding still remained higher. In the one game that he played, Kamalpreet Singh showed he has the right makings.

Dhanraj Pillay continued as the fulcrum of the attack. May be, he was not as speedy as he used to be, but his sense of the angles and crisp passes to create openings made him the darling of the crowd. That he was behind all the three goals that India scored at Wollongong confirmed Dhanraj's stature. If further proof was needed, it came in the second encounter against Pakistan, which the latter drew after trailing 1-3 at half-time and 2-4 midway in the second. Dhanraj's creativity is perhaps unmatched on the contemporary scene.

Australia's Tristram Woodhouse (second from right) is congratulated by his team-mates after he put his side ahead early in the match against India at Perth. The beaten Indian goalkeeper, Devesh Chauhan, is seen lying on the ground. — Pic. AFP-

Though one was sceptical about Baljit Singh Dhillon's comeback at this stage, the way he utilised the tour to project himself was striking. Some of the goals he scored, at least the one in the final and the other against Pakistan, were as artistic as they were artful.

It is a pity he blemished the beauty of his performance with a red card suspension against Pakis<147,2,1>tan and India was forced to play more than 30 minutes with 10 to fritter away a 2-4 lead and finally draw the game.

On the left, Dhillon broke through delectably, often in the company of Prabhjot Singh. The latter, who was in poor shape in the early part, picked up gallantly as the tour progressed to figure in a few spectacular moves and finishes. The same cannot be said of Gagan Ajit Singh in whom coach Rajinder Singh places extraordinary confidence.

For the amount of opportunities given to him by the benign coach, Gagan cannot be termed as a success in the tour. On the contrary, it was Sandeep Michael who, after that superb display against Australia `A' — the first full match he played — deserved a little more time on the field. But the coach was not inclined for that, for reasons not easily fathomable.

Mukesh Kumar, the other veteran, flopped badly and Arjun Halappa was mostly sidelined. Youngsters Prabhodh Tirkey and Tushar Khandekar had brief outings against Australia `A' but the lads have plenty of years ahead of them to wait for their opportunities.

The consternation in the Australian camp to the reverse as also the inconsistency shown was genuine. Coach Barry Dancer conceded that the team had not markedly progressed after the disastrous show in Cologne. The two combinations fielded at Perth and Sydney contained the quintessence of the national pool but the performance, on the whole, was unsatisfactory, despite the brilliant individual work of Jaime Dwyer and Troy Elder, who recorded hat-tricks during the two tournaments.

Lack of constructive work in the mid-field impeded the rhythm of the frontline notwithstanding the punchy show of Micheal McCann and Andrew Smith. Both Gaudoin and Livermore played below par. What propped up some strength was the efficiency displayed by Adam Com<147,3,1>mens and Aaron Hopkins. Even the approach in the deep defence was not impressive. So was the quality of goal-keepers Mark Hichmann and Stephen Lambert, who played for the main team at Perth and Sydney respectively.

It was a sort of an irony that the `A' team should thrash the main national team to the tune of seven goals to two in Perth and that exposed, rather pathetically, the limitation of resources available at the hands of Barry Dancer, Colin Batch and company.

However, there were some striking performances, and notable was the consistency in shooting by the young Grant Stuart and Tristrom Woodhouse.

Atrophied by the absence of three stars, and totally lacking in depth and dimension, Pakistan ended at the bottom in both events. The sheen of beating Germany, the World champion, in the Azlan Shah tournament has clearly been wiped out. The process has to begin all over again and how the management will come out of this queer situation remains to be watched.

In the eight matches played, Pakistan had one victory against the `A' team at Wollongong, a dramatic 4-4 draw with India, losing the rest. To say that it was a disappointing show will be an understatement.

Both the manager, Sheikh Shahnaz and coach, Tariq Zaman, had a lot of explaining to do for the indifferent show.

The injury to Ali Raza depleted further the strength in deep defence. In the mid-field only Saqlain stood out while in the frontline not everyone combined well, despite the hard work by Rehan Bhat, Mudassar Khan, Shabir Hussain and Taqushif Jawaad.

Goal-keeper Ahmed Alam has his best years behind him and the other custodian, Salman Agbar, clearly was not in the international class as yet.

Immaculately conducted at both venues and also a new centre, Wollongong, the twin editions only underlined the professional systematisation perfected by Hockey Australia under the Executive Director, Linden Adamson. A word of praise for Matthew Slade for best media inputs and arrangements should not be construed as an exaggeration. The events achieved the focus they intended to, thanks to his professional zeal.

The results:

At Perth: Australia beat Pakistan 3-0; beat India 2-0; lost to Australia `A' 2-7; India beat Australia `A' 2-0; beat Pakistan 2-0. Australia `A' beat Pakistan 2-1. Final: Australia beat India 2-1.

At Wollongong: India drew Australia 3-3; (Sydney): beat Australia `A' 4-3; drew Pakistan 4-4; Australia beat Pakistan 4-3; drew Australia `A' 3-3; Australia `A' beat Pakistan 5-2. Final: India beat Australia 5-3.