Lessons from Ipoh

Clearly, the plus point of the Indian team’s performance has been its junior players of whom Sandeep Singh gave a splendid display, writes S. Thyagarajan.

The tragedy of Indian hockey, nay sports in India, lies in equating mediocrity with meritocracy. Else, you will never witness a felicitation function for a team that did not win the trophy. Come to think of it, there are innumerable instances of world championship medallists being given the cold shoulder, or forced to fend for themselves on arrival at the airports.

The tamasha that the Indian Olympic Association, as the ad hoc body controlling the affairs of Indian hockey, is staging in New Delhi with the chairman of the selection committee emerging as autocratic as the one he was fond of accusing till recently, irritates and infuriates the hockey community as a whole. Here is a perfect case of a cure being worse than the malady.

There is no doubt that India’s performance at the Azlan Shah tournament in Ipoh, Malaysia, deserves appreciation. But the ad hoc committee, or even the selectors, cannot ignore the fact that the pool of junior talent had been assiduously prepared by the regime that had been ousted. Clearly, the plus point of the Indian team has been its junior players of whom Sandeep Singh gave a splendid display. The nine goals he scored in Ipoh underscored his proficiency even though they came against weak oppositions.

The tournament, though, cannot be classified as an ‘A’ grade championship, for none of the top teams that usually enjoy the Malaysian hospitality was willing to make it this time because of their preparations for the Champions Trophy in Rotterdam in June. Even the two strong Asian teams, China and South Korea, were absent.

Ric Charlesworth was to the point when he said on arrival that India managed to win the silver medal because the bar was too low. Admittedly, this is the truth.

And this should not be viewed as criticism, but taken as an assessment reflecting pragmatism.

All these points of analysis should not be construed as instruments that deflect from the mood of the outcome.

The catastrophic developments before the departure of the Indian team and the uncertainty over the composition of the team till the first match must have affected the team. The two defeats against New Zealand and Argentina bore testimony to this fact.

What was commendable though was India’s recovery. The sequence of four victories against Belgium, Canada, Pakistan and Malaysia helped immensely to elevate the team’s confidence. The inputs of the new coach, Ajay Kumar Bansal, integrated the players well. In the mid-field Gurbaj Singh worked tirelessly to assist forwards Sardar Singh and Shivendra Singh and they looked menacing whenever they surged ahead.

India’s trump card, however, was Sandeep Singh. His impeccable strikes prompted a debate as to why such an endowed player was kept on the sidelines for such a long time. Diwakar Ram was another player who contributed considerably to the team. That Argentina managed to score the golden goal to win the trophy was no surprise. The Latin American squad is known for such dramatic performances and the most memorable one was at the Champions Challenge in Antwerp last year, when it beat New Zealand by a golden goal.

That Argentina failed to qualify for the Olympics following a golden goal by New Zealand at the Auckland qualifiers and a similar defeat to Canada at the Pan American Games in Rio is poignant indeed. One golden goal in either of these events would have put Argentina on the plane to Beijing.

The four Olympic qualifiers who figured in Ipoh were left with a lot of worries. Consistency and craft were missing in their approach. Pakistan, which raised lot of hopes initially thanks to the brilliance of Rehan Butt, was laid low by India. So were New Zealand, Belgium and Canada. That India managed to conquer three of the four Olympic qualifiers perhaps underlines the shallowness of the quality that is going to be on view at the Beijing Games in August.

Coming back to India, the result engenders a ray of hope, especially after the disastrous outcome in the twin four-nation tournaments in Perth and Darwin. If India is to gain anything from its display in Ipoh, it has to understand the available quality and content of the junior pool and entrust the same to a stalwart like Ric Charlesworth without any delay or doubt. Only he seems capable of shaping Indian hockey at this juncture. Otherwise, it will be the same old story of a freak medal here and there.

Only a high quality show in the next junior World Cup in 2009 will bring India back to the international stage of recognition.

This may be an anguishing thought, but the reality of it cannot be wished away.