India's trump card in penalty corners

Published : Nov 10, 2001 00:00 IST


INDIA triumphed in the Junior World Cup at Hobart, and this is how it achieved that. India arrived in Sydney, tired and weary from the long flight, to practice, acclimate and relax for a week before heading to Hobart. The practice pitch was the same used for the Sydney Olympic Games a little more than a year ago, and this would have brought all the memories for Devesh Chauhan, Gagan Ajit Singh and Deepak Thakur of India's lacklustre Olympic results.

Two rival coaches commented on the shambolic training sessions they had observed of India; lacking in structure, intensity and purpose and promptly wrote off India's chances to their lasting misfortune.

Saturday, October 6 at 6:00 am the team flew towards Hobart, stopping first in Melbourne to avail themselves of the cheaper indirect flights to Hobart. A quiet air of nervous enthusiasm surrounded the team on its journey.

Montgomery's Back-Packer Hotel in the middle of sleepy Hobart city was the home of the team for stay in Hobart where the players found green-capped volunteers to advise them where to eat, when the buses left for the Tasmanian Hockey Centre on the shores of the Derwent River at Cornelian Bay, about eight kilometres from the centre of town.

Each morning at 8:30, the team assembled to walk the two blocks to Constitution Dock where the yachts from the Sydney to Hobart race tie up each New Year's Day. There space was found on the grass for some stretching as Hobart's friendly residents waved and watched as they walked to work in nearby offices.

Confusion greeted the team's first warm-up. The official programme named Deepak Sonkhlar in India's team but the name on the shirt of number 10 was Deepak Thakur. A short discussion with Rajinder Singh sorted the problem, but the team sheets and official announcements of every goal scored by India's number 10 for the whole of the tournament named Deepak Sonkhlar.

After a couple of warm-ups on the match pitch, it was Tuesday, October 9 and time to play Canada in the last match on day one of the tournament.

Indians predominate in the Canadian team and all seemed to have met Balbir Singh senior at some time in their young lives. Canada's Aneal Basi, Inderjit Bath, Sunil Fernandes and Shalinder Somal were just some of the Canadians with Indian antecedents and they gave nothing away in the first 10 minutes before the dam wall burst with goals.

On reflection, the match with Canada was to foretell the final result of the tournament. India won 5-0 and of course went on to win gold while Canada went from bad to worse and took the wooden spoon 16th place of the tournament. But more was foretold by that match.

Gagan Ajit Singh beat three defenders to set up the first goal for Deepak Thakur to tap in from in front of goal, Prabhjot Singh scored twice from the left and Jugraj Singh threw in two penalty corner conversions. Watching the same names score remarkably similar goals in the final brought back the first game against Canada and perhaps made Canada's 0-5 loss a little more palatable for them.

Wednesday was a rest day for the boys, spent practicing corner routines, doing a little exploring on foot in the city and remaining relaxed as the weather turned cold.

On Thursday India met Scotland and Deepak turned into a scoring machine, slotting 4 of India's 7 goals with Prabhjot, Gagan, Tejbir Singh and Kanwal Preet Singh all adding to the tally.

With six points from two matches, 12 goals for and 1 against, India had qualified to play in the top half of round 2 of the tournament even before playing Spain on Friday, October 12.

Spain was India's first quality opponent, albeit the second youngest team in the tournament chosen by FIH Master Coach, Maurits Hendriks, now Technical Director of hockey in Spain after successfully coaching the Dutch men to their second successive gold medal in Sydney.

The rain stopped and the wind dropped for the 1:00 pm start but the temperature fell to eight degrees Celsius.

India scored first when Jugraj Singh fired a penalty corner drag flick into the roof of the net after taking two steps into the circle. The power of the shot caused Francisco Cortes in goal to duck his head out of the way.

Spain's striker, Eduard Tubau, was not in scintillating form, well marked by Jugraj in the circle and off balance when he made his shots.

Deepak put the match out of the reach of Spain with a fine individual goal three minutes into the second half when he weaved his magic into the circle and dived to scoop over the charging Francisco Cortes out from his line.

Gagan sealed the match for India with a field goal and the match fell away as Spain rested key players and went through the motions as they played out the remaining 22 minutes of the match.

Spain's coach Salvatore Indurain was the first to recognise India's potential in the tournament. "Both Spain and India have their own specific styles and skills. There are some very good players in the Spanish side and there are some very good players in the India side. But with the general skill level of the Indian team, they have 9 or 10 who are at an extremely high technical level whereas Spain would have 3 or 4 exceptional players. That is definitely a difference between the them.

"India plays much more with a clear attack and a clear position in the team that is zonal and defensive. It is something you have to get used to. They might keep 5 or 6 players in defence and play a straight attack with 2 or 3 players in one line right to the goal. To play against a defence like that is a different experience," Indurain said.

Round Two started on Sunday October 14 with India in the pool with Argentina, Australia and the Netherlands with the rest of the top 8 comprising England, Korea, Spain and Germany.

Argentina was not overawed by the technically superior skills of India, taking the game to India at the same speed as India usually plays. Argentina scored first to have India a goal down for the first time in the tournament.

Lucas Cammareri ran around Jugraj and worked the back line on the left, deftly weaving past two defenders and have the ball touch the foot of a defender.

Juan Gilardi drove his flick into the right of the goal, leaving Devesh standing in the middle of his goal and Indian heads hung for the first time.

Deepak's reply followed India's fourth penalty corner with Gagan under suspension. The ball was not stopped cleanly at the battery and was taken out to the quarter line. A sweep pass found Deepak unmarked in front of goal for him to deftly flick into the right corner of goal.

The third quarter was a replay of the first quarter as both teams probed the defences of the other. India looked more dangerous initially as they played wider though the left to Bipin Fernandez who made a cross into the circle for Deepak to get a quality shot on goal, however the shot flew wide.

Argentina played predominantly through the middle of the pitch in direct line to goal and attempting to beat India's deep defence one on one. Kanawal Preet Singh and Jugraj Singh were equal to the task. India looked vulnerable when Argentina moved the ball quickly through the circle across goal. Alejandro Pasquali had two dives for the deflection of the ball and missed both by millimetres, unable to get stick to ball.

Ten minutes from time, India stepped up the tempo, played in Argentina's defensive quarter and Deepak got a powerful shot on goal which Joaquin Berthold in goal made a flying stick save to deflect the ball over the sideline.

India conceded a penalty corner as Argentina regrouped and threw players forward. Juan Gilardi scored his second goal with a drag flick just under the crossbar to the right of Devesh to put Argentina in the lead 2-1.

India came back through the middle of the pitch and earned a penalty corner when Gagan gained possession in the circle from a defensive error by Argentina and Gagan forced the corner. Jugraj made his drag flick low onto the pads of Joaquin Berthold. Bipin Fernandez picked up the rebound and pushed into the right of goal for the equaliser.

"This was a tough game. Argentina is a tough team for us to play, but all eight teams in the top half of round two are good teams and all games are tough for all teams" said Rajinder. "I was not happy with my forward line today, they did not click at all," he said.

Monday, October 15, 7:00 pm came as India's darkest hour.

Australia was badly beaten by the Netherlands 4-2 on Sunday. The Indian players watched Australia turn over easy possession and make numerous unforced errors unworthy of a schoolboy team. India was justifiably full of confidence of beating Australia and K. P. S. Gill booked his flight to see India play in the semi-finals before this match.

Australia's coach, Colin Batch, did a great job in getting Australia to believe they could still play hockey.

The Australian player, Travis Brooks, said, "We had a meeting after the Netherlands game and the coaches threw the gauntlet down to the players and asked the question 'How much do we want to win the World Cup?' We regrouped as a team and discussed some attitudes towards the tournament and as a result we came out today and played with a lot of passion and fire we were lacking in previous games."

"We have not been playing with the tenacious attitude you need every time you wear the green and gold," Brooks said.

India slowly gained the ascendancy in the second quarter of the match as Australia turned over possession in the midfield. India punished each mistake and created quality scoring chances for Gagan, Deepak and Prabhjot and on the counterattack.

India shaded Australia in the scoreless first half with 14 circle penetrations to Australia's 11, each had 4 shots on goal but Australia had 5 penalty corners to India's 1.

The second half started with the sickening sight of Ajit stretched off clutching his face, felled in the circle by Liam de Young with a blow to Gagan's right shin. De Young drew a yellow card suspension for 10 minutes. From the resulting penalty corner, Jugraj Singh drove home the goal.

Australia replied quickly with a short-handed goal from its 6th penalty corner with Craig Victory getting the deflection over Devesh.

Two minutes later, Tejbir attracted a yellow card for interfering with the ball carrier in midfield and the match was played with 10 players aside for seven minutes.

Australia's second goal brought the crowd of 2,000 to its feet as Australia moved the ball quickly through India's circle from the centre to the right to Josh Hawes on the left who slapped into the middle of the net to put Australia ahead 2-1.

India applied pressure to Australia's defence in the next minute and Michael Boyce attracted a yellow card suspension to handicap Australia to 10 players for 5 minutes.

Gagan came back to the pitch for the last five minutes with his left leg bandaged.

India had four penalty corners in those five minutes but could not get a clean shot on goal.

Australia defended vigorously to the last as India came back with wave after wave of attack but could not score.

After the match, Rajinder said, "Our start was pretty good and were in control for the first 15 minutes. Regarding my forward line, I warned them to click but they were not combining and I do not know why they are not combining.

"We missed 4 to 5 open net goals by Deepak, Gagan and Tejbir, that is why we lost," Rajinder said.

"That game was like a final because both teams needed to qualify. We missed chances and they availed themselves of their chances," he said.

"Against Holland (India's next opponent) we will go all out to win. If there are chances to beat Holland we will take the chances," Rajinder said.

"India earned a total of 8 penalty corners today. The goalkeeper and the rushers did not let us be successful in the penalty corners," Rajinder said.

With one point from two matches, India had to win against the Netherlands two days later to have any chance of a semi-final berth. K. P. S. Gill cancelled his travel arrangements to Hobart when he learned of the loss to Australia.

Argentina defeated Australia 2-1 on Wednesday morning to open up India's chance to qualify for the semi-finals and India grabbed the opportunity by leading the Netherlands 2-0 after 10 minutes.

Gagan's brilliant field goal and Jugraj's penalty corner high into the left of goal were the pick of the goals, then lack of discipline by Ignace Tirkey two minutes later saw him warming the suspension bench and the Netherlands mounting attacks for the first time.

Roderick Weusthof powered in a penalty corner flick while Tirkey was suspended to get back to 2-1 then 2-2 at the 22 minute mark when Mathijs van Weerd scored a field goal for the Netherlands.

Prabhjot put India ahead 3-2 after 13 minutes of the second half, skilfully eluding the Netherlands' deep defence on the left to score.

Rob Reckers popped in a goal off the pads of Devesh who blocked a penalty corner drive by Roderick Weusthof for the Netherlands to equalise at 3-3.

India threw everyone forward as a draw would eliminate them from the semi-finals in favour of the Netherlands. Five minutes of end-to-end hockey earned India its fourth penalty corner which Kanwal converted to put India ahead 4-3 with 13 minutes to play.

India staunchly defended as the Netherlands opened up the pitch, searching for an equaliser. The Netherlands had one last chance with a penalty corner in the last 20 seconds of play but the drag flick from Roderick Weusthof found the stick of India's rusher after the hooter and India had won.

"It was a tough game for India," coach, Rajinder said "and luckily for us we won. Our game plan was to attack and when we went onto defence, the Netherlands equalised."

The win put India into the semi-finals against form team Germany which had not lost a match in the tournament. In the other semi- final, England played Argentina, leaving Australia, Spain, The Netherlands and Korea to fight out 5th to 8th places.

Many phone calls ensued and K. P. S. Gill again booked to come to Hobart to see the semi-finals and finals two days later and accommodation was found for him at the star Grand Chancellor Hotel a couple of blocks away from the team.

The 3-2 win on Friday against Germany looks like a close scoreline but Germany was the architect of its own loss in weather more like Hamburg in winter than Hobart in spring. There was snow on Mt. Wellington, looming over Hobart, and the temperature a cool six degrees Celsius despite the setting sun shining in the first half.

India jumped to an early lead. Deepak Thakur carried possession into the right side of the circle, one-on-one with Ulli Buboltz in goal. As Thakur steadied to strike, Buboltz extended his right pad, sending Thakur to the pitch. Umpire Keith Roper of England blew the penalty stroke which Kanwal put high to the left of the net with Buboltz going to his right.

Germany came back. Playing characteristically patient hockey and earning two penalty corners. The first went wide of goal for Nicolas Emmerling to deflect in but India's defence deflected the ball over the backline. The second went right through the battery to India's midfield.

Germany's Eike Duckwitz missed a pass in the backfield. Inderjeet pounced, carried unchallenged into the circle with only Buboltz to beat and drove into the middle of the goal as Buboltz covered his left post for India to lead 2-0 after 22 minutes.

Germany had chances in the second quarter but Oliver Herschel and Nicolas Emmerling could not get quality shots on goal from possession in the circle.

Arjun Halappa scored again at the end of the first half, getting his shot between the pads of Buboltz from near the top of the circle to take India to a 3-0 lead a minute from the break.

India started the second half defending its lead, holding 10 players behind the ball as Germany held possession inside its defensive quarter as the rain set in and the temperature dropped further.

Germany dominated second half play by carrying the ball into India's circle, rather than try to drive hits into the circle, earning 8 penalty corners and scoring two goals.

Florian Keller scored from a penalty corner, getting a slashing drag flick across Devesh high into the right of goal (53rd minute).

Hobart's changeable weather improved. The rain and breeze stopped as night fell and Germany continued to attack.

Germany had serious problems with its penalty corners, at one time having 5 corners in succession for no shots on goal. Either the ball was not stopped or India's runner from goal intercepted the ball.

Mattias Witthaus scored a field goal from a cross from his right and Germany threw everything at India to score the equaliser with 4 minutes to the hooter, but could not get a quality shot on goal.

"I rate India higher than Argentina or England to win the final," said Germany's coach Forstner after Argentina had taken care of England 3-1 in the other semi-final to set up the final between India and Argentina.

"We played well in the first half to have three goals but after 10 minutes in the second half we were under pressure from Germany," said Rajinder.

"Our defence made mistakes in the second half and that is why we conceded so many penalty corners," Rajinder said, "when Germany went all out to score."

"Our skilful players made the difference today. We have better skills than Germany and have prepared this team over the last one and a half years," Rajinder said.

"We have 18 players with the same standard of play so we have no problem with our bench if Ajit or Thakur is injured," he said.

"Perhaps our players will each receive more than Rs. 1 Lakh for making the finals," Rajinder said.

England's coach, David Vinson, had encouraging words for India. "For the sake of hockey I hope India can use their skills in the final," he said, "and I hope for the good of the game that they play the way they can and we see their skills show through."

Saturday was a rest day for India. The team took the time to spend some of the rupees already earned and was seen staggering from stores under the load of carry bags over-flowing with purchases.

Sunday dawned bright and warm with a cloudless sky and 15 degrees Celsius by 3:00 pm when the grand final started. The national anthems played, governors, premiers and potentates were introduced to an enthusiastic crowd of 3,000 players, supporters and paying customers and the game began.

India settled to its task quickly and Argentina looked nervous. This was, after all, the first time any men's team of Argentina had played in a final of any major international tournament.

Prabhjot scored first, taking a pass from Bipin at the top of the circle into space wide to the left of the circle. Prabhjot swooped on the ball with no defender within 2 metres of him, making good his backstick shot off the pads of Argentina's Joaquin Berthold after 11 minutes.

India continued to put pressure in the first quarter, earning two penalty corners in quick succession. There was a long overhead pass to the right wing into Argentina's defensive quarter. Gagan passed to Vikram Pillay who passed on to Deepak. Argentina's defenders infringed with the ball and the first penalty corner was awarded, then re-awarded when Argentina's defenders infringed again.

On the second penalty corner, Jugraj Singh threw his drag flick high to the right of Joaquin Berthold for India to lead 2-0 after 17 minutes.

Jugraj had another corner conversion opportunity in the first half and flicked hard along the carpet but the ball was not stopped and the attempt disallowed.

Argentina attacked in the second quarter, seeming to find its own tempo and gain confidence and matched India for the number of shots on goal (5) and possessions in Indian circle but could not score in the first half.

India started the second half with pressure on Argentina, earning three penalty corners in the first three minutes without scoring. Jugraj could get only one clear drag flick on goal and that was saved low and to the right by Berthold.

Argentina scored from a movement down the right to the backline with Lucas Cammareri getting the pass back and pushing the ball unchallenged into goal for India to lead 2-1 after 9 minutes of the second half.

The match was balanced then. But India made an immediate reply a minute after Cammareri's goal when. Jugraj sunk Argentina's hopes of equalising by converting India's 7th penalty corner with a drag flick high into the right of Argentina's goal for Jugraj's second goal and India's third.

Argentina went all out to try to score, leaving huge gaps in Argentina's midfield and backfield which India exploited.

Deepak scored three times in the last 15 minutes from the same simple play. From the backfield a pass was thrown over the top of Argentina's defence to the far left near Argentina's defensive quarter line. From there, Gagan passed into the circle where Thakur was unmarked with only the goalkeeper to beat and score.

Deepak's second goal earned him no popularity prizes. Gagan drew Joaquin Berthold out from goal and the two became intertwined and unable to get up. Meanwhile Deepak had the ball 200 millimetres from the goal line with no player of Argentina within the circle. Deepak stood, walked around, waved, and finally after what seemed like 10 seconds, Deepak smashed the ball into the backboards.

This was a piece of unwarranted showmanship which did not endear him to the crowd or show respect for India's opponents. There was little enthusiasm from the crowd to the announcement that Deepak's goals took him to the top scorer of the tournaments with 10 goals.

Indeed, moments later umpire Pedro Teixeira vigorous pulled players apart as Berthold claimed to have been held by Gagan and he remonstrated with Gagan and the umpire, as players ran in from all sides. Calm was restored when India's bench ordered its players to go to the centre line for the restart.

"We were dark today, like in a cloudy day, and we did not play well," said Alejandro Verga, Argentina's popular and emotional coach..

"It was a good experience for the team and as senior players they will not make the same mistakes," he said. "Even though we lost 6-1 we still have a silver medal," he said.

"There will be a big celebration for us tonight and in India also," said India's captain Gagan Ajit Singh. "Everyone is happy because we will be getting good prize money," Gagan said. "Now we will be going for the senior World Cup and we will be trying our best."

"My boys did an excellent job today and today was the only day they played their game. In other matches they played in patches but today they were excellent. I was not expecting this high scoring but they outclassed them. We combined in the half line and the forward line. They proved India could do it," Rajinder said. "Argentina's team did not click, and it was not the day for Argentina today and they did not play well," Rajinder acknowledged.

From here it was left to K. P. S. Gill to say "well done" to the team and for mobile phones to ring constantly and for numerous photographs to be taken of India with the trophy and the same potentates, governors and premiers who had been welcomed at the start of the match.

India well deserved to win the Junior World Cup. To use the words of Dr. Richard Charlesworth Australian captain and coach of Australia's women's gold medal teams in Atlanta and Sydney, "Given the athletes they have who are so quick and so flexible and so skilled there is no reason [India] cannot do very well. India did better than very well. The future of India's hockey is poised to see the galaxy of stars India can produce. The hopes of the hockeyers world wide are that India will replicate this success in the senior ranks in the future, echoing David Vinson's words, 'for the good of the game they play the way they can and we see their skills show through.' "

David Eakins was voted by the umpires as the Player of the Tournament and the Netherlands received the fair play with only 4 green cards and 1 yellow card in the tournament.


MOMENTOUS was the Indian team's triumph at Hobart. It would be extremely imprudent to identify a player or two as the fulcrum for this outcome. Yet this is an exercise which is indulged in by any chronicler for the benefit of posterity.

If the vote as the Player of the Tournament went to the compactly built, Deepak Thakur, it was on the sheer weight of his performance. Ten goals, and field ones at that, gives this figure a magical aura. What enhances the value are the four in a tally of seven against Scotland, and, of course, the hat-trick in the final against Argentina. Not since the three-in-a-row by Stephen Veen of the Netherlands against South Korea in the final of the last Olympiad in Sydney has there been another instance of a hat-trick in the final. These records make Deepak Thakur unique in the annals of hockey.

Stardom for Deepak Thakur has not come easy. The challenges have been far too many. He met them with a great sense of patience, perseverance and proficiency. Born on December 28, 1980, in Himachal Pradesh, Deepak's hockey odyssey began as a member of the SAI Sports School at Patiala. At the age of 15, he figured in the National junior event, making an impact immediately with seven goals in two matches. Small wonder, in the next edition at Bangalore, his individual tally touched 18.

As student of Mahendra College, Patiala, Deepak gained the distinction of winning his senior cap much before figuring in an international. The fact that he has so far played only 22 junior matches against the 57 at the higher grade shows the confidence reposed in his skill by the National selectors.

What distinguishes Deepak from the rest of the flock is the sense of anticipation and opportunism. Like Dhanraj Pillay, who serves as the inspiration, Deepak is competent enough to circle round the defence with absolute ease and control. He is also a sharp shooter, and his backhanders are a delight to behold.

Less than three years after the debut in the junior national, Deepak climbed the ladder quickly. Though a reserve for the 1999, India-Pakistan series, Deepak won his place for the pre-Olympic tournament in Sydney and earned the Olympic cap next year. One outstanding performance during this phase was the personal tally of 17 goals in the Asia Cup, the qualifier for the Junior World Cup at Kuala Lumpur. India smashed as many as 60 goals before failing by a whisker against Korea in the final.

Deepak is such an accomplished player that the coaches view him as an all rounder. He was made to play on the wings and also in the centre. At one point, it looked as though Deepak's talent would be wasted by the whimsicalities of the coaches. An effort to find certain shortcomings in his recovery mode, mercifully, did not work. But fierce competition forced him to bring in his best after a subdued performance in the Olympics and also at the qualifier in Edinburgh. At Hobart, Deepak touched a high watermark, and should be the main striking force for the national team for some years to come. He is employed with the Indian Oil Corporation.


A STRIKING feature of competitive hockey is the penalty corner. And more matches and titles have been won on the ingenuity of those, who execute it in different styles and modes, perplexing the goal-keeper and the defenders. Sohail Abbas of Pakistan, Calum Giles of Britain, Bram Lomans of the Netherlands, Florj Kunz of Germany, Peter Milkovich of Canada are some who have earned a unique place by their ability to convert penalty corners.

India was viewed as lacking in the execution of penalty corners. Efforts to shape Baljit Singh Dhillon and Raghuvanshi in drag-flicks, against the traditional power-hitting by Prithipal Singh of the previous generation, did not succeed in the expected measure, although it must be admitted Dhillon scored a handful in international matches. Jugraj Singh is now projected as India's trump card in penalty corners. His tally of seven in the Junior World Cup indicates his potential. This he underlined during the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament. In fact, he scored off a penalty against Pakistan in the Azlan Shah. He was the second highest scorer, next to Deepak, at Hobart.

Born on April 4, 1984, Jugraj Singh excelled during his school days at Lylalpur Khalsa. Success courted this ebullient youngster, whose hero is Sohail Abbas of Pakistan, on his first international tour, the Asian sub-juniors at Singapore, where India won. He was also part of the juniors who won the AHF Asia Cup at Ipoh, in which he scored 14 goals. And what more could he bargain for than winning the Junior World Cup at Hobart.

Jugraj was also a star-performer in the junior National at Chennai. Impressed by his inherent talent, the chief coach, Cedric D'Souza picked him for the senior camp. A product of the Surjit Hockey Academy in Jalandhar, Jugraj has played seven matches in the senior level and 24 in the junior competitions. He is now with the Punjab Police.

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