Indian Airlines triumphs

The Indian Airlines team, which won the Bombay Gold Cup hockey tournament. — Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

INDIAN AIRLINES won the 41st Bombay Gold Cup hockey championship by doing more than just scoring one more goal than its rivals. It was about preparing the best line-up in the country to perform to potential, about using bench strength and rules to ensure the team lasted the course without losing steam and about ego-management in a side packed with internationals.

Eventually, the parade of champions in orange-and-white walked away with their fourth title in seven final appearances this season after scoring when it mattered the most. Indian Airlines topped the quarterfinal league ahead of three teams, broke down Karnataka XI's resistance in a double-leg semifinal for a 10-3 aggregate before edging out Indian Oil in the title clash 4-2 via the penalties.

"Victory was more important than playing well. The boys were told to win, no matter how," observed coach Merwyn Fernandes, a triple Olympian and former national selector, aware of the perils of overseeing a side heavy with Indian players. "If this team with quality players in every position could not win the Gold Cup, I don't know which team could have," he said. "We played three finals earlier this season, the boys played excellent hockey but lost. We could not allow it to happen again."

The team with most stars ended up with the winner's purse of Rs. 1,00,000 and Rs. 11,000 for getting the least cards under extremely humid and competitive conditions. The holder Air-India was ousted in the first round. Between these two achievements lies a tale of success scripted by a star-studded team against whom every rival gave off its best, right till the very end when Indian Oil decided to find out whether Indian Airlines was beatable.

Tight defending by Indian Oil in the final kept the scoreboard blank in 70 minutes of regulation time and 15 minutes extra-time. Nerves were stretched to the limit by the time the match went into the penalties even as Mumbai's humidity took a toll on the bodies. When it came to the crunch, Indian Airlines' resilience and class helped raise their play to a new level even as the challengers wilted under the burden of injuries and heat.

Goalkeeper Ashish Ballal and spearhead Dhanraj Pillay rose to the occasion, the former pulling off reflex saves in extra-time and penalties to keep his side in the hunt. The latter had been the inspiration till the final, conceiving and creating such audacious, delightful goals that IOC had to keep him under guard in the summit clash. Prabhjot Singh, a dangerous, skilful striker in the rival ranks, edged out both IA stalwarts in the race for `Player of the Final' and `top-scorer' awards respectively.

The classy IOC forward, sporting an orange bandana as if he needed a prop to attract attention, made every defence chasing shadow with sizzling runs down the flanks, snaking past sticks and legs. He ended up as the top-scorer with 10 goals, one more than the inimitable Dhanraj, whose skill in taking the fastest route to the goal and eerie sense of space helped him conjure nine goals, most of them out of nowhere.

For the champion side, goals came through short corners instead of field goals as was expected in keeping with the quality of the strikers. Mukesh Kumar sounded the boards via indirect route thrice, all wristy, angular hits as skipper Lazarus Barla and Dilip Tirkey opted for direct route. "The team had practised penalty corner conversions for earlier tournaments. Perhaps the hard work put in then helped us now," reasoned coach Fernandes, pointing out that scoring goals is important, not how you get them.

The IA strikers, closely marked on reputation alone, found it difficult to forge ahead due to their inexperienced midfield where international Vikram Pillay was making his debut, along with international Bimal Lakra and youth internationals Prabodh Tirkey and V. S.Vinay. The last named confirmed his potential as a dependable right-half for the future with an outstanding display right through the tournament.

Just 19 and blessed with enough energy to keep hitting passes all day long, the Coorg youngster from SAI (Bangalore) who looks up to former India skipper M. M. Somayya as a model midfielder, was chosen the `most promising player' by the Sports Journalists Association of Mumbai. IOC's Sunil Yadav, Karnataka XI's Birender Lakra and Bhopal XI's Osaf-ur-Rehman were three new faces to attract attention, while EME (Jalandhar) midfielder Avtar Singh was named the `Player of the tournament' for passing ability and depth of vision.

Indian Oil, the only other team with abundant Indian talent, reached the final despite being handicapped by injuries to Kamlesh Kumar and loss of skipper and international Deepak Thakur in the knockout phase. The defence, marshalled by international Viren Rasquinha in tandem with India goalkeeper Devesh Chauhan, soaked up the pressure in key matches against Western Railway in the semifinals and IA in the final, while Prabhjot slogged upfront.

Karnataka XI's positive approach as a unit, coupled with individual flair to make things when in possession, lent a touch of freshness to the tournament. This young side (goalkeeper Bikram Chetri the only international) was greeted with cheers by fans in this event organised by the Bombay Hockey Association, despite having to endure dormitory-type accommodation in BHA premises and sleepless nights before key matches.

Karnataka manager A. E. Brient said: "We are not complaining about facilities, just that proper rest and recovery for the boys would have resulted in better performances against big teams, making the tournament more exciting." Western Railway, the other semifinalist, impressed as a compact attacking unit, armed with a potent strike force in skipper Chanderpal, fellow strikers Shivender Singh, Shanta Kumar and Ingo Singh displaying control and quick reactions in the goalmouth to trouble even highly experienced IA in the league phase.

The results: Final: Indian Airlines 4 (Sameer Dad, Arjun Hallappa, Vikram Pillay and Prabodh Tirkey) bt Indian Oil 2 (Bikramjit Singh, Prabhjot Singh) via penalties (full-time 0-0, extra-time 0-0).

Semifinals (double-leg): First leg: IA 4 (Mukesh Kumar, Bimal Lakra, Dad, Dhanraj Pillay) bt Karnataka XI 2 (Abhinay Ganapathy, Krishna Reddy). Second leg: IA 6 (Dhanraj 2, Dilip Tirkey, Arjun Hallappa, Dad, Prabodh) bt Karnataka XI 1 (Birender Lakra). Aggregate 10-3. First leg: IOC 1 (Prabhjot) bt Western 0. Second leg: IOC 2 (Mohd. Nawas, Hamza Mujtaba) bt Western 1 (Ingo Singh). Aggregate 3-1.

Awards: Avtar Singh of EME, Jalandhar (player of tournament, Rs. 5000), Prabhjot Singh of IOC (top-scorer, Rs. 5000 and man of final Rs. 5000), A. Aleem of Bhopal XI (best goalkeeper, Rs. 5000), Indian Airlines (least cards) Rs. 11,000, V. S. Vinay of IA (SJAM's most promising youngster, Rs. 5000).

Nandakumar Marar