India plagued by inconsistency

On top... New Zealand players pose with the Sultan Azlan Shah trophy.-AP

The tournament offered the teams the chance to experiment and fine tune their strategies. This, perhaps, contributed to the twists and turns in the league phase. That the line-up for the final positions were determined only on the penultimate day emphasised the unpredictable trend. Over to S. Thyagarajan.

As the final rehearsal for the London Olympics, the 21st Azlan Shah hockey tournament was significant for more reasons than one. That six of the seven teams in the competition had booked their tickets for the Olympics enhanced speculation and accentuated study of form.

In essence, it was an occasion for the players and coaches to experiment and fine tune their strategies. This, perhaps, contributed to the twists and turns in the league phase of the tournament. That the line-up for the final positions were determined only on the penultimate day emphasised the unpredictable trend.

While New Zealand registered its maiden triumph, defeating Argentina in the final, it was India's podium finish that came under the scanner. The fans eagerly looked forward to the outcome with India having qualified for the Olympics.

It was a litmus test for India's coach Michael Nobbs. A match-by-match analysis of India's performance reveals perplexing inconsistency. In a combination, that was an amalgam of top-class stuff and mediocrity, such frailties are inevitable.

However, Nobbs was surprisingly generous in expressing satisfaction over his team's performance. The coach probably felt that beating Pakistan and Great Britain in the bronze medal match would cover up for the team's inadequacies he spoke of repeatedly.

On the positive side was the brilliance of Sardar Singh in the mid-field. He was outstanding and truly deserved the Player of the Tournament prize. His class, consistency and composure underscored the fact as to why he is considered one of the top stars in contemporary hockey. Nobody else in the team displayed that kind of confidence and competence though goalkeeper Bharat Chetri and youngsters Kothajit Singh and Uthappa do qualify for some praise.

The Indian defenders, despite stout-hearted display by Birendra Lakra, inspired little confidence overall. The reverse suffered against Argentina in only a matter of seconds exposed the limitations of the team's defence. Sandeep Singh and Raghunath were called upon to do their bit in penalty corners and both displayed their proficiency to some extent.

India's frontline, disappointingly, functioned in fits and starts. Star strikers such as Tushar, Shivendra and Sunil were patchy although everyone can claim glory for a goal scored here and there. Sunil's match-winner against Pakistan was a beauty; so were the goals by Shivendra and Tushar against Britain that enabled India to seal the bronze medal.

However, when evaluated strictly, the Indian attack lacked tempo, tactics and territorial dominance. For all the innate talent neither Danish Mujtaba nor Manpreet managed to strike the right chord. A flash here and there got buried in the errors committed. Sarvanjit Singh rarely integrated into the attack.

New Zealand stayed focussed throughout. The team deserved its maiden trophy triumph which reflected its determination, dedication and delectable designs in the area of attack and in the conversion of penalty corners, headed by Andy Hayward.

It was a team effort all through, thanks to the motivation of the soft-spoken coach, Shane Macleod. Blessed as the coach is with a string of stalwarts such as Ryan Archibald, Simon Child, Shea Macalesse, Dean Couzins and Kyle Pontifex — who was adjudged the best goalkeeper in the final as well as in the tournament — the Kiwis' success story at Ipoh deserves all-round commendation.

Few noticed Argentina after its two reverses in as many days. But the gallant fighters from South America staged a remarkable comeback to pull themselves into the final. Skilful and spirited in their forays, they profited from the tireless work of Mathias Parades and the unflappable Lucas Vila.

Britain returning home empty-handed after raising hopes of a podium finish was quite disappointing. Jason Lee's wards did not recoup fully after the drawn game against Malaysia in the opener.

The kind of labour put in the mid-field by Glenn Kirkham and Ben Hawes was appreciable, but the frontline failed to click despite the presence of stars such as Matt Daly, Robert Moore and Jony Clarke. The exception though was Ashley Jackson who proved his scoring proficiency time and again.

The innocuous performance of Korea, which finished fifth, was a talking point. Why the Koreans were so listless puzzled many.

On a high following the junior Asia Cup win, Malaysia — the only nation in the tournament that did not qualify for the Olympics — went all out in their matches. With fine displays by Faisal Saari, the new-found hero of Malaysian hockey, Aslan Misron, Rahim, Razie and Hanafi, the Malaysians looked formidable throughout.

The woes of Pakistan, which ended up last and went out of the reckoning for placement matches, need special documentation. It was beyond belief that a team that had scored a 4-2 win in the opening match against Argentina should tumble to one defeat after another.

Pakistan did not have a bad combination. Players such as Haseem Khan, Umar Butta and Zubair, headed by the world renowned Sohail Abbas, were capable of turning the tables on their opponents. But the team suffered from an inexplicable mental block and failed to make good use of the numerous chances it had.

Ipoh was a wake-up call for Pakistan. The team needs to cover a lot of ground before the London Olympics. Conducted with usual éclat, the 21st edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament was exciting, eventful, exhilarating.