India emerges champion

Sandeep Singh, who scored two goals in the final against Pakistan, being tossed up by his team-mates after India had won the junior Asia Cup. -- Pic. AFP-

THE host was looking forward to putting the icing on the cake. In the event, India not only stole the thunder but the icing as well, in decorating its own cake, as it beat Pakistan with a resounding 5-2 margin in the final of the junior Asia Cup hockey tournament in Karachi.

Following the cricket tour of Pakistan when India won both the one-day and Test series; and the participation in the SAF Games where India swept most of the medals including 101 golds, it was nothing new that the Indian juniors were able to excel in Pakistan, in winning the maiden title in the regional competition.

However, coach Harendra Singh and most of the players were unanimous in stating that it was a great experience for them to beat Pakistan on its own soil.

"It is the best moment of my life'', said Harendra Singh, who has been guiding the Indian juniors to a series of wins around the world for about two years.

"Playing India would be great and if we win the title with a win over India it would be an icing on the cake'', was the comment from the Pakistan coach Asif Bajwa after his team had made the final, and awaited the winner of the other semifinal featuring India and the defending champion Korea.

Unfortunately for the Pakistan coach, his players lost the battle with their hot temper, and a bit of selfish play by their captain Shakeel Abbasi, which was viewed as a major reason for India slamming the goals with counter-attacks when it led 4-0 at one stage, with Tushar Khandekar firing three goals.

"It was great feeling to score those three goals, but it was the halfline that did all the work'', said Khandekar, quite enthusiastic in fielding the questions with a rare touch of maturity when the team returned to a boisterous reception at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi.

It was only in the fitness of things that Sandeep Singh, the 19-year-old penalty corner specialist who had scored 14 goals before the final, sealed the fate of Pakistan with two quick blows, that took his tally to 16 goals.

Pakistan had found its rhythm and had reduced the margin to 2-4 thanks to the goals by Tariq Aziz and penalty corner expert Imran Warsi, but missed a few chances thereafter in making a meek surrender.

It was keeping in tune with the recent trend when Pakistan crowds had been won over by the Indian players, that the hockey team was given a standing ovation by the home fans at the presentation ceremony.

India's Hari Prasad (second from left) being challenged by Pakistan's Khalid Mehmood and Adnan Zakir (on ground) in the final. -- Pic. AFP-

Harendra Singh emphasised that he was confident of lifting the trophy, as his team had the discipline and among various other posi<147,1,7>tive qualities, the all important hunger to win. With about half the team having already played at the senior level in international competition, albeit without much success to speak about, the Indian players had the maturity to handle the final with poise and dignity, as they retained their equanimity despite being provoked by the rough play of the Pakistan lads in the first phase.

Though he was quite thrilled about beating Pakistan in the final, the Indian coach was quick to acknowledge that Korea was a hard nut to crack in the semifinals, as India pulled off a 4-3 win in the tie-break.

It was in this match that India was pushed to its wit's end, as the teams were locked goalless after 85 minutes of play, including the extra time of 15 minutes after the regulation period.

To compound matters, Sandeep Singh missed the third penalty for India. However, the Indian goalkeeper, Adrian D'Souza rose to the occasion and stopped the fourth and fifth penalty strokes taken by Yong Cheol Shin and Jong Hyun Jang.

In contrast, Pakistan had cruised into the final, with a 5-2 triumph over Malaysia in the other semifinal. In fact, Pakistan had proved too good for Korea also in the league phase, as it recorded a 7-3 triumph, asserting its class in the last 20 minutes of the match. It was a saving grace, as Korea eventually finished third behind India and Pakistan, in booking the third and last berth for the next junior World Cup to be played in the Netherlands next year.

Perhaps, the one-sided encounters in the league when India beat China (10-0), Bangladesh (10-0), Sri Lanka (17-1) and Malaysia (5-2), had not helped India prepare well for the tough encounter against Korea.

The tight marking by the Koreans proved stifling for the Indian team, and the players were unable to wriggle their way to score goals. Added to that was the Korean efficiency in denying the penalty corner specialist Sandeep Singh to such an extent that the young lad, a student of Khalsa College in Patiala, on a stipend with the Indian Airlines, was unable to convert even a penalty stroke in the tie-break.

"The confidence was there that we would do well against Pakistan. I was not disturbed about not scoring against Korea, and was ready to give my best against Pakistan. It was only my third tournament for the Indian team, and am happy to be the top scorer'', said Sandeep Singh, who has collected 32 goals in all from those three tournaments.

Having won the junior World Cup in Hobart, Australia, in 2001, it was not that big an achievement for India to be crowned the Asian champion. But, there was no denying the fact that the youngsters took the opportunity to project a positive image of Indian hockey and present a bright future.

Though the work will start for some of the lads in their bid to try and win the World Cup next year, some of the boys admitted that it was "a dream for everyone to make the senior team, especially for the Olympics''.

The former captain of the Indian team, Dhanraj Pillay, along with a host of other former players, had sought the inclusion of the talented players like Sandeep Singh into the main team.

It was another matter, that the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) was swift in drafting a few juniors in its scheme for Olympic preparation.

The chief coach of the Indian team, Rajinder Singh, was happy with the development of Sandeep Singh in the penalty corner department, but observed that it would take some time for anyone to slip into the shoes of the injured Jugraj Singh, who had made a name for himself in international hockey, with his accurate drag-flicks.

When the Indian senior team has been struggling to strike with any confidence, as it finished fourth among four teams in the tournament in Sydney around the same time, it was indeed refreshing to find the Indian juniors crown themselves as the champions in the ten-nation tournament.

If people expect the success of the juniors as a ready-made answer to India's aspirations of a medal in Athens Olympics, it would be a huge mistake.

There are miles to go and promises to keep, before the youngsters can push the seasoned ones out and establish themselves in the Indian squad, let alone beat the world.

Yet, hope springs eternal. The Indian juniors have rekindled the hopes, and it is for the authorities to channelise the resources and make a solid team for the Olympics, a studied blend of youth and experience that may possibly deliver the results on the biggest stage in sports.