Like a whiff of fresh air

Australian team with the Azlan Shah Trophy.-

The Indian team managed to impress a wide spectrum of the audience with its vibrancy in the attack and consistency in the mid-field, writes S. Thyagarajan.

Encouraging are the signals. But to translate them beyond the confines of pragmatism is inappropriate. India's bronze medal in the Azlan Shah hockey tournament is needlessly over-projected; if anything, it should be underplayed.

True, the outcome is like a whiff of fresh air, but the hype that everything is good with Indian hockey now will prove to be counter-productive. The 2007 edition of the Azlan Shah Trophy at Ipoh was a testing ground, sort of a laboratory for the eight competing nations. Their goal was the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

For India, the second successive bronze meant a status quo. However, this time there were elements to be commended. Firstly, the coach Joaquim Carvalho had disproved many misgivings. He succeeded in injecting some self-belief in the Indian team; formatted a system of training by considerably reducing the workload and cutting out long and monotonous sessions. His emphasis was on aggression, mirroring contours of all-court press supported by an organised defensive phalanx.

The Indian players go on a victory lap after defeating South Korea for the third place.-PTI

That the Indian team managed to impress a wide spectrum of the audience must be acknowledged. Those who followed the team's fortunes rightly appreciate the vibrancy in the attack and consistency in the mid-field. A place in the final was not beyond the squad was the refrain of the seasoned stars.

Yet, Carvalho and his boys must understand that the road to Beijing is a long and arduous one. Of some solace, however, is the fact that they are on the right path. That a lot still remains to be done goes without saying.

A positive development in the Indian team relates to the youth content in the attack getting into a working rhythm. Bharat Chikkara, Roshan Minz and Sardara Singh constituted the striking force, complementing the work of the seasoned strikers Tushar Khandekar, Rajpal Singh and Prabhjot Singh.

Had the principal attacker Shivendra Singh been more successful in hitting the target, India's chances of playing in the final would have been considerably enhanced. Shivendra flopped against Malaysia in the crucial semifinal though he scored India's only goal in the match.

India's Sardara Singh rises up to the challenge of South Korea's Cho Suk Hoon.-AP

It was refreshing to see Roshan Minz surging in and out, displaying noticeable ball control. He was somewhat hesitant inside the circle. Sardara played with far greater assurance and provided excellent openings, besides scoring the winner against South Korea, which helped India win the bronze medal. The quick sallies of Chikkara also contributed to the nip in the Indian attack. Carvalho was probably right when he lamented that the seniors despite their experience were found wanting.

Gurbaj Singh emerged as the best mid-fielder for India. This is not to deny the value of the roles played by Bimal Lakra and Prabodh Tirkey. Wing-half Gurbaj ventured into the attack often giving the rival defence a real tough time. Vickram Kanth also played a very useful role in the mid-field.

William Xalco exuded confidence in the defence. But the same cannot be said of Harpal Singh. Despite his predominance in the area, he was embarrassingly error prone, always succumbing to his enthusiasm and not deploying his skills to the fullest possible extent.

The young drag flicker Raghunath caused a lot of dilemma for Carvalho. Poor in one-to-one tackle but excellent in drag flicks, Raghunath could not be posted as a full time defender but was needed for penalty corners. There were times when the Indian coach allowed the maverick youngster to roam in the rival area. He struck two brilliant goals against China to wipe out India's stain of the Asian Games defeat but was unable to make the best use of the chances against Korea.

Carvalho's faith in goalkeeper Baljit Singh more than the seasoned Bharat Chetri proved right. The former performed with credit. But Chetri, playing in the bronze medal match, effected some lovely saves off penalty corners.

Where India slipped was in the opening match against Australia — the Olympic champion looked very vulnerable. Only a snap goal decided the fate of the match. Unusually rusty and looking laboured the Aussies palpably struggled to strike top form. They even lost to Argentina, whom India beat to book a berth in the semifinal.

Australia too experimented with new faces, but retained the services of stalwarts like Brent Livermore, Matthew Wells, Andre Smith, Grant Schubert and Rob Hammond. But strikers such as Desmond Abbot, Russel Ford and Ed Ockenden excelled, as did Josh Hawes in the defence.

The Aussies needed an impressive win against the Chinese to sew up a semifinal berth. This they did in style, winning 7-2, and then demolished South Korea 6-2 in the last four encounter. Thereafter, Australia's triumph in the final against Malaysia looked a formality.

The 1-3 reverse in the final notwithstanding, the Malaysians can look back at the event with satisfaction. On road to recovery after a disastrous two years since 2004, Malaysia's youth programme seems to be paying rich dividends. Its new coach Sarjit Singh is a no-nonsense man with a lot of fire in him. It is his endeavour to put Malaysia on top and he is not far away from his goal.

Ismail Abu symbolised the spirit of the Malaysian attack, while Jiwa Mohan and Jivan Mohan in the mid-field lent a modicum of stability. Drag flicker Zulkifli was conspicuous in the defence, but high praise should go to the goalkeeper Kumar Subramaniam, who was adjudged the best in the tournament.

South Korea was not in full strength, and its fourth place only reflected that. Skipper Kim Chul strove hard almost throughout to keep the frontline at work. But the team depended heavily on the flicker Jeong Yun Sang.

With more than a dozen players engaged in foreign leagues, Argentina was compelled to forge a hotchpotch combination. But the flair and fervour displayed by Rodrigo Vilas and the variations the team showed in penalty corners made it look dangerous to everyone. Lucas Rossi was another shooter causing a lot of alarm to the defence. Pedro Ibarra's penalty corner executions disconcerted even the best of custodians.

It was sad to see Pakistan slide to sixth place. After being held 2-2 by Malaysia, the team progressively lost its sting, steam and even the system that has won acclaim all over. But for goalkeeper Salman Akbar's display in the tiebreaker against China, a 7-8 finish was in the realm of possibility. That verdict would have embarrassed the establishment. Even now, the team management, with the iconic Islahuddin at the helm, will have a lot of explaining to do back home.

The problem in Pakistan is finding adequate replacements. Leave alone a substitute for Sohail Abbas, the team is struggling to come to terms with the absence of Saqlain in the mid-field and Shakeel Abbasi in the frontline. The folly of omitting Abbasi for the tournament was felt in every match Pakistan played.

China's Asian Games bubble was burst by India, Australia and Argentina. But the team stood up to the pressure well, and almost forced a defeat on Pakistan. Song Yi, who was the top scorer with six goals, and Liu Tang were prominent.

Returning to the fold after seven years, Canada had no pretensions of winning a medal. The Canadians played with noticeable vigour and spirit, indicating how tough it is to beat them. Youngsters like Gabbar Singh and Ravi Agnihotri combined well with seasoned stars like Peter Short, Paul Wettlaufer and goalkeeper Mike Mahood.

As far as the organisation of the tournament is concerned, all the demands that the Malaysians usually set for themselves for an event of this magnitude were met in very professional way. The inspiring presence of Sultan Azlan Shah at the venue daily ensured that everything was in the right place. More importantly, the spectator response was tremendous. The full house on the final day provided a splendid setting for audiences across Asia and Europe.