India scripts a new chapter

This was the moment that every hockey enthusiast was waiting for. And that glorious defining hour dawned at Bukit Jalil Stadium, when India scripted a new page in the hockey history, claiming the prestigious Asia Cup for the first time since inception in 1982.

S. THYAGARAJAN

This was the moment that every hockey enthusiast was waiting for. And that glorious defining hour dawned at Bukit Jalil Stadium, when India scripted a new page in the hockey history, claiming the prestigious Asia Cup for the first time since inception in 1982. The joy of accomplishing such a magnificent task was more than doubled by beating Pakistan, winner of the cup three times between 1982 and 1989, in a final that elevated the whole aspect of competition to the plane of aesthetic delight.

Indian captain Dhanraj Pillay greets Ignace Tirkey after he scored India's third goal against Pakistan. Teammates Gagan Ajit Singh (left) and Baljit Singh Saini join in the celebration. India beat Pakistan 4-2 to win the Asia Cup.-AFP

Only three days before, India went down to Pakistan 2-4 in the Pool `B' encounter succumbing to the pressure of penalty corners in the second half. But on that memorable Sunday night, India turned the tables on Pakistan. It won by the same margin in a match that mattered most. The team won the glittering cup and also registered a place for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Looking back on that eventful week at Kuala Lumpur, the sequence of India's performance looks like a dream come true. Four victories in five matches, and the victories included two top teams in the continent — South Korea in the semi-final and Pakistan in the final. A total of 25 goals, averaging five per match mirrors the commanding performance of the team.

Prabhjot Singh of India is jubilant after sealing Pakistan's fate with goal No. 4.-REUTERS

Indisputably, India was the most balanced of the eight teams on view and richly deserved the triumph. There were times when it looked the squad may fumble for lack of cohesion in the frontline. But once the forwards played in unison, at an impressive pace, it was clear that the team was reigning supreme. The trio of Deepak Thakur, Gagan Ajit Singh and Prabhjot Singh proved its proficiency both against Korea in the semi-final — the goal by Deepak was a beauty — and Pakistan. Prabhjot Singh scored that brilliant last goal a few seconds before the hooter against Pakistan.

For the ebullient 18-year-old Karnataka star, Sandeep Micheal, the Asia Cup was a stepping-stone to greater heights. His appearances were brief as a substitute, but whenever he came on the scene this gallant lad did something spectacular, like the equaliser against Pakistan in the first meeting and the goal against Korea in the semi-final. If groomed well, Sandeep may well be the replacement for the irrepressible Dhanraj Pillay, who, along with Baljit Singh Dhillon, accentuated the sharpness of the attack through his experience, expertise and enterprise.

Deepak Thakur (left) is challenged by Sohail Abbas in the final. Thakur is an asset to the Indian team. The Pakistan team depended on the gifted striker Sohail Abbas for penalty corner conversions.-REUTERS

Admittedly, the strength was in the mid-field. Shaky though initially, it settled down magnificently in the final to nullify the power and precision of the Pakistan attack. Ignace Tirkey had a splendid tournament and carved that fantastic moment of the final, scoring a delightful goal when a minute and 27 seconds remained for the hooter. This apart, he was consistent at left half, trapped the ball with a touch of assurance and adeptness. With Bimal Lakra, who played almost as a joint centre half with Viren Resquinha, he contributed immensely to the strength of the mid-field as did Vikram Pillay, whenever he was injected into the contest.

A special tribute is due to the veteran Baljit Singh Saini for the lead he provided to the mid-field. He marshalled the attack, creating numerous openings with his astute forward passes. Saini touched the peak of his prowess in the final game, serving the frontline commendably and even providing the vital pass for Ignace Tirkey to hoist that spectacular goal. To some extent, Dilip Tirkey, filled the breach of Jugraj's absence in penalty corners. A few of his direct hits were splendid both in precision and execution. As a tackler too, Tirkey stood out, and his long drives always signalled an alarm to the rival defence. Kanwalpreet Singh was steady throughout. Goalkeeper Devesh Chauhan did raise some misgivings about his form in the earlier part, certainly in the first meeting with Pakistan. In the final too, he looked vulnerable to the two penalty corner hits that Sohail flicked, but that rush out save against the much-feared Pakistani was a classic effort that raised his level of confi<147,2,1>dence. He then brought off two brilliant saves, one from Tashif Jawaad was eye catching.

Baljit Singh Saini (left) and Wasim Ahmed in the thick of action in the final. Baljit marshalled the Indian attack, creating numerous openings with his astute forward passes, whereas Wasim Ahmed was outstanding for Pakistan in the mid-field.-REUTERS

Whatever be the perception of the chief coach, Rajinder Singh, towards the media, the fact that he has produced results cannot be ignored. He deserves the accolade for the silent way he has been working with the team. Since he took over before the twin tour of Australia in 2002, there have been some remarkable performances to India's credit at Cologne, Busan, Perth, Sydney, Hamburg, Amstelveen and Kuala Lumpur. It is time that Rajinder Singh realised that media is as much eager to see India on the side of victory and relish such moments as much he or his team does. To treat media as though it is inimical, or out to destroy the credibility and credentials of the coach is both unwise and unfair. Victory is great binder and the one at Kuala Lumpur should help Rajinder Singh build better rapport with the media.

One aspect that should not be overlooked about the Indian team is fitness. The team played at a lively pace throughout, and more so, in the final moments against Korea and Pakistan. Trainer Sampath Kumar deserves all the commendation for this development.

Lee Jung Seon of South Korea (second from right) is congratulated by his mates, after scoring his team's fourth goal against Japan. Korea won 4-2 and finished third.-AFP

Very unusually, Pakistan never showed the flair and fervour in the frontline to make it a frontrunner. The attack looked extremely inhibited. Minus Kashif Jawaad, none figured prominently, and the team rested on the gifted striker, Sohail Abbas for penalty corner conversions. Once the penalty corners were not coming, Pakistan was at a loss as it did in the second half when India did not concede a single penalty corner during that session. Nadeem Ahmed, Mudassar Ali and Shabbir Hussain, all played below their best.

The pair that really commanded attention was Wasim Ahmed and Mohammad Saqlain in the mid-field. Both were outstanding in their work, be it in defending, or distributing the passes. But the forwards were inadequate to take full advantage of these bounties. Coach Tahir Zaman was right when he admitted in the post-match briefing that the let down by the forwards cost the team the title. Pakistan won the Asia Cup last in 1989, and the Asiad gold in 1990 at Beijing. At Busan, Pakistan went without a medal for the first time in the Asian Games since 1958.

Expectedly, the reaction in Pakistan is bound to be adverse to the verdict in Kuala Lumpur.

South Korea, the defending champion, showed no pretensions of holding on to the trophy. It was conceded even before the start that the team was on test with seven newcomers to the fold. The draw in the opening game against Malaysia showed that the squad was vulnerable, and so it turned out to be despite the 6-0 win it recorded against Japan in Pool `A.' Lee Jung Seon was its outstanding player in penalty corners, and claimed the distinction of scoring a hat-trick against Japan in the bronze medal match.

Actually, it was Japan that played with a lot of verve and vivacity. The maner in which it beat the host team, Malaysia, after the latter had shared points with Korea, was praiseworthy. The Japanese were nippy, defended tenaciously, giving a hard time for Pakistan in the semi-final. The 3-1 verdict definitely does not show the intensity of the fight put up by the Japanese. Kenichi Katayama led that seasoned bunch in which Iwadate, Tobita and Takahashi were prominent.

Gagan Ajit Singh lies flat on the ground, after scoring India's third goal against South Korea in the semifinal. Deepak Thakur (No.8) and Baljit Singh Dhillon (No. 10) are ecstatic. India beat Korea in the semifinal.-REUTERS

Amidst the welter of criticism about the way the German coach, Paul Lissek, was handling the team, Malaysia, the Asiad bronze medallist, struggled to end the campaign in the fifth place. The satisfaction of sharing points with Korea suddenly turned into a mood of despair after the defeat against Japan and the narrow 2-1 win over Hong Kong. The fitness level was definitely below the requirement of a high voltage competition like the Asia Cup. Minus the defenders, Kuhen and Nor Azlan, the rest were anything but consistent.

China impressed everyone for the remarkable strides it has made in recent years. Adopting the style and system of the Koreans, the Chinese played a very attractive brand of hockey with speed as the forte. Mid-fielder Song Yi was the pick, for his ability to hit the target — he scored seven of the eight goals against Bangladesh. Skipper Lu Peng and Jiang <147,4,0>Xi Shang also shared the limelight for the way they shaped in, forcing Malaysia to fight till the final minute before conceding the fifth spot.

Wasim Ahmed of Pakistan tries to outwit Ryuji Furusato of Japan in the semifinal. Pakistan beat Japan 3-1.-AFP

Thriving in conditions that cannot be described as conducive to enhancing hockey's popularity rating, Hong Kong managed to move up the ladder beating Bangladesh for the seventh place. Whatever the team lacked it was not inadequate effort. Skipper Farooq and the brothers, Arif and Asgar, displayed fighting spirit and never hesitated to force their way into the attack.

Disappointing was Bangladesh, which ended at the bottom. The team had conceded 26 goals before scoring its first in the 7-8 place match. For a country that spends so much on sport like hockey by inviting players from Pakistan and India to play in the home league, the quality of performance by Bangladesh was very poor. Barring the Ariful Prince, none of the others cornered even a modicum of attention. The team needs to be overhauled and fresh talent has to be inducted if it means to make a mark in the next Asiad at Qatar. Bangladesh is now relegated to the `B' division and has to qualify for the next edition of the Asia Cup.

Malaysia's expertise and experience in organising internationalcompetitions reflected in every aspect of the conduct of the sixth Asia Cup. With Tan Sri P. Alagendra, Secretary, AHF, at the helm along with the silent worker Satgunan executing the programme, the event progressed without a hitch at any stage.

A word of compliment to the Tournament Director, Muneer Sait, who ensured that everything was in place from day one, cannot be deemed as exaggeration.