Miles ahead of the rest

The triumphant Punjab side.-M. VEDHAN

Punjab lived up to the favourite billing and scored 31 goals, conceding just five, on its way to a hat-trick of titles. Punjab had all the ingredients for success; a robust forward-line, strong defence and an imaginative midfield, reports K. Keerthivasan.

Halfway into the Hockey India-conducted Junior National Men’s Championship, which concluded in Chennai recently, Punjab emerged as the undisputed favourite.

The team, on its part, lived up to that billing and scored 31 goals, conceding just five, on its way to a hat-trick of titles. Punjab had all the ingredients for success; a robust forward-line, strong defence and an imaginative midfield. Moreover, the experience of four players — Harjeet Singh, Jarmanpreet Singh, Parvinder Singh and Varun Kumar — came in handy. The four had earlier played in the Hockey India League and the experience clearly helped them to control proceedings for the state side here.

Avtar Singh, Punjab’s coach, was quick to point out that most players were trainees at the Surjit Hockey Academy (Jalandhar), where he is one of the coaches. “I know all the guys, their strengths and weakness. So, it was easy for us,” he said.

In the final, Punjab thrashed Odisha 6-2, despite some anxious moments early in the second half. “We knew, they had a good midfield and forward-line. But once we stopped their supply line, they panicked,” Avtar said about the final. Punjab and Odisha had met in the last two Junior National finals, the results being similar.

“We were outplayed,” said Pradeep Kumar, the Odisha coach. He lamented the lack of bench strength and said it was a prerequisite to take on powerful teams like Punjab.

Of all the teams in the ‘A’ division — apart from Punjab — only Odisha and Haryana looked solid and performed at a high level.

Dutchman Roelant Otlamans, High Performance Director of Indian hockey, was impressed with Haryana’s game.

The rest looked pedestrian. The boys’ ball-trapping skill, speed and composure in front of the goal left a lot to be desired. So, those who failed to make it to the knockout have a lot of homework to do.

As is the case with most age-group tournaments in India, there were also whispers about over-age players. “Some boys in Haryana looked older,” former hockey great, Ashok Kumar said. There were doubts about a few of the Punjab players too.

However, Renuka Lakshmi, Secretary, Hockey India unit of Tamil Nadu, feigned helplessness, and said the association could act only if there was a specific complaint. SAI coach, Y. S. Chauhan, went a step further and gave HI a clean chit, and said the association has a process whereby detailed age-records of players are kept over all age-group tournaments.

The pitch at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium, the venue of the Nationals, too, came under scrutiny. The turf, which was re-laid in 2005, is well past its lifespan. Former players and officials from outside Tamil Nadu criticised the host for conducting a major event on a sub-standard field. It is learnt that the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu has invited tenders and the turf will be re-laid again, soon.

Punjab (Pool ‘A’) started its campaign with a 10-0 win over Delhi, and then thrashed Tamil Nadu 9-1 to top the group. In the semi-finals, it defeated Haryana 6-2. “It feels good to win three titles on the trot. All credit to our boys, who stuck to a plan,” Avtar said. Accrediting Punjab’s continued success to the presence of decent infrastructure in the state, Avtar said: “We have eight turfs in Punjab; two in Jalandhar, one each in Ludhiana, Amristar, Chandigarh, Mohali and two in SAI (Patiala) and that helps.”

Clearly, the rest in the country have a lot of catching up to do.