India needs self-belief

Dilip Tirkey the captain of the Indian team, will be playing in his third Asian Games.-PHOTO: P. V. SIVAKUMAR

India has to win at least a silver medal in order to book a place in the 2008 Olympics without having to go through the stressful qualification tournaments, writes S. Thyagarajan.

For a little over two decades, beginning 1958, the hockey gold medal at the Asian Games was a toss up between Pakistan and India. But at the 1986 Games in Seoul, South Korea smashed the sub-continent's hegemony, and has since become the powerhouse of the continent. Nothing illustrates this better than Korea's showing at the recent World Cup in Monchengladbach, Germany.

With a tally of seven gold medals compared with India's two, Pakistan was far ahead of its neighbour in the Asian Games hockey. But tragically, Pakistan's last gold medal came in 1990 at the Beijing Asiad, and at the last Games in Busan, it finished without a medal for the first time, losing the bronze to Malaysia.

The historic details are of little relevance today. In the days leading up to the 15th Asian Games in Doha there is expectancy over what the power equations would be. The competition now is more significant than before because the top two teams will qualify for the Olympics, unlike in the past when only the winner went through.

In Doha, South Korea has the best credentials to win the top honours. The three gold medals it won in 1986, 1994 and 2002 prove the nation's meteoric rise in Asian hockey. Amalgamating speed and skill, and gifted with a bunch of impeccable drag flickers, Korea has injected a refreshing style and elegance into its game.

True, the current team may not have a player of the calibre of Song Seung-Tae, but strikers Jong Ho and Jong Hyung, who are adept in taking penalty corners, can wreak havoc on any defence. Korea will go all out to retain the gold medal and book a place for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As the silver medallist in the 2002 Busan Asian Games, India comes into focus despite its disastrous performance in the 2006 World Cup where it finished 11th. So much has happened since Busan that it will be difficult to catalogue the traumatic moments. Quite a few players and coaches have come and gone.

Rehan Butt leads a newlook Pakistan team.-PHOTO: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The current coach Vasudevan Baskaran ventured to inject some spirit into the team which saw India win the bronze medal at the last Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. But the World Cup dealt a lethal blow to Baskaran, as India suffered in the absence of Sandeep Singh. An accidental bullet injury to the drag flicker rendered him hors de combat for at least six months.

Veteran Dilip Tirkey, who is playing in his third Asian Games, has a fairly young but unpredictable squad. What the team needs more than skill is self-belief and a sequence of high scoring victories.

India has never returned from the Asian Games without a medal; now a silver medal is a must for the team to book a place in the 2008 Olympics without having to go through the stressful qualification tournaments.

The convulsions are no less traumatic for Pakistan, which also witnessed a turbulent phase of poor results and changing of coaches. A sixth place in the World Cup was hardly a consolation. The new-look Pakistan team, led by the ebullient Rehan Butt, cannot afford to return without a gold.

A team that everyone now fears is Japan. Its ninth place finish in the 2006 World Cup came as a surprise, but the team's strong point is its boundless energy. It is difficult to visualise the competition ending without a medal for Japan.

Malaysia, which failed to qualify for the Olympics and the World Cup, is striving hard to win back its place in the top echelons. The only silver lining was the bronze medal it won at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. What the team under Kuhen is yearning for is a place in the Beijing Olympics. This goal is not beyond Malaysia's reach if it displays a modicum of consistency.

The women's competition, put on the board in 1982 in New Delhi, where India won the gold, is bound to be dominated by China, the defending champion, notwithstanding its poor showing in the World Cup in Madrid after reaching the final of the Champions Trophy in Amsterdam. South Korea and Japan, ninth and fifth respectively in the World Cup, cannot be taken lightly.

India, the Commonwealth Games silver medallist, needs to prove that the Melbourne medal is no fluke. The women's competition is one pool round-robin league with the top two fighting for the gold medal.

TEAMS IN THE FRAY MEN

Pool A: Pakistan, Malaysia, Japan, Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong.

Pool B: South Korea, India, Bangladesh, Oman. WOMEN

China, Japan, South Korea, India, Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong.