INDIAN TEAM PICKING UP MOMENTUM

In the limited time, since his fourth stint began, Baskaran has worked hard with the seasoned and with those not as experienced. His way of blending new ideas and effecting a few formations are ingenuous, writes S. THYAGARAJAN.

Baskaran was smiling. The chief coach had a reason. Not that he had achieved something extraordinary. All that he did was to set a modest, attainable target — a podium finish — at the Azlan Shah tournament. That was realised.

Six years separated India and a bronze in the tournament. The only achievement in between was the Asia Cup win in 2003.

In the limited time, since his fourth stint began, Baskaran has worked hard with the seasoned and with those not as experienced. His way of blending new ideas and effecting a few formations are ingenuous. The response is excellent, what with players comprehending their role. The composition of a young threesome forward line-up of Hari Prasad, Shivendra Singh and Tushar Khandekar with Tejbir and Halappa in the feeder line is a refreshing step.

The off-form Gagan needs a bit of prompting to get back his rhythm. Shivendra and Hari Prasad are skilful as their display against the Kiwis in the bronze medal match demonstrated.

The experienced mid-field, where Vinay, Vikram and Prabodh figured prominently, was another plus point as was the success rate of Sandeep Singh in the penalty corners. While Adrian was splendid under the bar, the same cannot be said of Chetri.

The best was the 3-0 win against South Korea, especially when it was a must-win situation. The 5-2 verdict against Malaysia was another creditable effort, after the humiliating 1-4 start against the Aussies.

As a prelude to the World Cup, the tournament, which featured seven qualifiers, was an interesting exercise. The Netherlands, who eventually smashed Australia 6-2 in the final after a somewhat lacklustre start, losing 3-4 to Pakistan, proved that its nucleus is in place and was playing well. Both Teun di Nooijer and Jerome Delmee with Ronald Brower captivated the audience with their enviable flair.

The Dutch hero was Roderick Wousthof, whose timely strikes won him the Player of the Tournament trophy. The awesome display against the Olympic and defending champion, Australia, surprised Roelant Oltmans himself. "My forwards were fantastic,'' exclaimed the Dutch coach. The 2-6 final loss and the 0-3 shock defeat against Korea were an embarrassment for the Aussies, despite its 7-1 semi-final win against New Zealand. Even assuming that they experimented with a few, the manner in which the renowned defence caved in was appalling. Barry Dancer had to work overtime to overcome the deficiency in every layer.

The evidence of New Zealand emerging as a powerhouse was clear. A pity that the sheet-anchor Ryan Archbald had to miss the last two crucial matches owing to an injury. But the way the Kiwis fought against Pakistan and Argentina projected their newfound variations and vibrancy. Blair Hopping and Hayden Shaw were solid in the midfield.

Asif Bajwa, Pakistan's coach, may have to do a lot of explaining back home after the team's fifth spot. Coming as it did consequent to the deplorable show in the World Cup qualifier, Pakistan's performance was woefully inadequate. The trio of Shabbir, Rehan and Shakeel Abbasi with Saqlain as the pivot is a world class amalgam but its inconsistency is amazing. Equally inexplicable was Korea's sixth spot. On the contrary, Argentina's new look squad demonstrated enviable flourish that decimated Pakistan and helped it beat the host for the seventh place with a golden goal. Tomas Argento and Juna Saladino were notable in the frontline. Enveloped in a mood of depression after the failure to qualify for the Olympics and World Cup, Malaysia is languishing in a grey zone. Its hope lies in retaining the medal at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha.