Indians settling down to a winning rhythm

INDIAN hockey is flying high, for the time being though. The triumph at the Hamburg Masters, in the wake of the successes accomplished in Australia last month, has engendered a great deal of optimism among the community and has also kicked up expectations.

S. THYAGARAJAN

INDIAN hockey is flying high, for the time being though. The triumph at the Hamburg Masters, in the wake of the successes accomplished in Australia last month, has engendered a great deal of optimism among the community and has also kicked up expectations. But permanence in sport, for that matter in any walk of life, is never a reality. On the contrary, things are so evanescent. Like records are meant to be broken, equations are made only to be realigned as time progresses.

The victorious Indian team. — Pic. AP-

Such sermonising is indeed mandatory so that no one gets carried away by the illusion that everything is smooth sailing. Alternatively, the testing times have only begun, and a plan has to be in place to consolidate, or even to retain the image acquired so far. But a win is a win, and that has to be acknowledged. It was not claimed against non-descript outfits, but against almost five of the six teams that are to figure in the Champions Trophy at Amstelveen.

No two opinions exist over the fact that there is a newfound flair, fervour and fluency in the performance of the Indian team now. The confidence level is notches high, and this is mirrored in the face of every player, whether he is a veteran or a newcomer. "At least, we now believe that we can take on anybody," asserts the bubbling Viren Resquinha, whose consistency in Australia and in Germany was something to be marvelled at.

India's Gagan Ajit Singh dribbles past Spain's Marc Garcia-Cascon (far left) and Josep Sanchez. Gagan was later declared the `Player of the Tournament.' — Pic. AP-

India definitely owes a debt of gratitude to Argentina for forcing a second draw on Germany that helped determine the top spot. In that needle encounter, the Argentines underlined their resilience and resourcefulness after losing two successive games, badly against India 4-2 and again to Spain by the odd goal in three.

From India's standpoint, the opening win against Argentina was a tonic for enhancing the skills to a new realm of technical excellence. Once again, it was the exemplary work of the mid-field and deep defence that formed the base for the team's excellent perform<147,1,7>ance. The emergence of the tall and broad-shouldered Kanwalpreet Singh as a mature defender was one of the high points of the tour. There is now a touch of elegance and effectiveness in his interceptions and tackling. And more importantly, he has begun to strike lethal blows on the opponent in penalty corners too as he did against Spain to trigger a 4-2 verdict.

A diving Jugraj Singh of India cannot stop Germany's Christoph Bechmann from advancing during their encounter. Germany won the match 3-2. — Pic. AP-

No panegyric reference of the defence can be complete without a tribute to the role of Dilip Tirkey, who is like a bastion. He has mastered the art of scoring penalty corners with perfect carpet drives. He scored a goal each in all the three matches. Then comes the strapping Jugraj whose overenthusiasm overshadows his excellent work. Often in the thick of the battle, he slips into needless infringements to the point of earning card punishments. His approach has to be tempered so that his proficiency comes to the fore. Though there was scepticism over the induction of Baljit Singh Saini, his efficacy to the harmonious functioning of the midfield has now become apparent. His expertise and experience were put to some creative work along with the consistently good work displayed by Bimal Lakra, Viren Resquinha and Ignace Tirkey. The third layer, goal-keeping by Devesh Chauhan, was above average, but it still needs to be fine-tuned. India scored 10 goals in three games but conceded as many as six.

Gagan Ajit Singh probably deserved the Player of the Tournament tag for some of the opportunistic goals he slammed. But taken on the whole, the frontline's work never matched the creativity shown by the mid-field, or even did justice to the superb lay up of passes by Dhanraj Pillay. Gagan and Prabhjot Singh along with Baljit Singh Dhillon were flippant when there was no need to be, wasting precious chances at the finish. Initially, Deepak Thakur, who missed the Australian leg due to injury, was rusty but found the rhythm in the tie against Spain.

As far as efficiency was concerned each forward was competent but the combination needs to be more effective if victory is to be achieved by larger margins. In tough matches, even getting a chance or two is not always assured, and the frontline should be proficient enough to convert half chances. But, by and large, the team is settling down to a winning rhythm with adequate bench strength possessing players of the calibre of Sandeep Michael, Tejbir Singh, Vikram Pilly and Vinay.

India's Baljit Singh Saini (middle) vies with Argentina's Tomas MacCormick. Saini proved his critics wrong with a superb display during the tournament. — Pic. AFP-

Defending the Cup, Germany assembled the best ever combination but the performance failed to touch the heart. Coach Bernhard Peters must now be a worried man having been charged with the task of performing well at Amstelveen, and then defending the European Championship, the winner of which is the automatic qualifier for the Olympics from the Continent. Lacking in verve and velocity, the hallmark of the German approach, the team struggled against the youthful Spaniards, sharing four goals after being down 0-2 at half-time. Against India, the Germans lost an early goal before recovering to win 2-1.

The Germans unusually lacked depth in the mid-field. The only conspicuous worker in that area was the seasoned Michael Green. Surprisingly, the rangy sweeper, Florian Kunz, was much below par. Neither in penalty corners nor in tackles was he effective as he used to be. In the frontline, Sascha Reinalt was prominent with Matthias Witthaus but the same cannot be said of the rest.

Maurits Hendriks, the Spanish coach, must be pleased with the way his players shaped in the first tournament before the European Cup at Barcelona. Spain fielded a relatively fresh combination that had a glorious start, sharing points with Germany. With hard running and emphasis on set pieces for penalty corners, the Spaniards succeeded in scoring a few well-conceived goals. Eduardo Aguilar and Xavier Ribas emerged as the key figures for penalty corners but the playmaker continues to be Juan Escarre.

Argentina's Fernando Zylberberg (blue) brings down Spain's Eduardo Aguilar during their match. Spain won 2-1 to finish third. — Pic. AP-

For sheer passion and emotional exuberance, there can be none to match the Argentines. Any other combination would have given up the ghost after losing two of the three games. But not the South Americans. They fought hard against the Germans for their first point in a glorious encounter, which brought to the fore the classic efforts by Matias Vilas and Mario Almada.

Back home their economy is a shambles but 11 of the 16 figure in European leagues. The team had combined practice at the Club for over 10 days. Matias Paredes takes on the colours of Ulhenhorster HC in the German Hockey League. The Argentine star Jorge Lombi, nursing a wrist injury, was ineffective in penalty corners and did not figure in the last game. It was left to Carlos Retegui and Matias Vila to take advantage. Coach Jorge Ruiz, a brilliant midfielder for Argentina in his heyday, observed that the outcome in Hamburg was of no consequence for the squad that has set its sights on taking the top place at the Pan-American Games in the Dominican Republic, and earn the automatic spot for Athens.

To say that the organisation was perfect is an understatement. The Ulhenhorster Hockey Club is promoting the sport for 102 years and hosting this event for the last nine years. The efficiency and enthusiasm shown by the officials headed by Peter Mueller and the set of volunteers were exemplary. The facilities for the media under the supervision of the cherubic Christoph Plass were top class and worthy of emulation.