New hope or false dawn?

A GOLD MEDAL AFTER 16 YEARS. The Indian hockey team players celebrate after winning the top prize at the Asian Games in Incheon.-PTI

For Indian men and women, Incheon was a path-breaking event in more than one sense. How they build on it will be watched with interest, writes S. Thyagarajan.

“India has… .” Even before the announcer could complete the sentence, spontaneous and sustained scenes of jubilation erupted across the Seonhak Stadium on October 2, as Dharamvir Singh sailed into history by scoring the match-winner in the shootout against Pakistan for the Asian Games hockey gold medal.

Statistics are cold, heartless numbers, one might say, but in the India versus Pakistan context, their relevance can never be underestimated. After a gap of 16 years — India last won the gold, defeating South Korea in Bangkok 1998 — it was India’s turn to stand on top on the podium. Pakistan was humbled after a gap of 32 years, even as the nightmare of 1982 New Delhi continued to haunt the memories of many Indian fans.

India's hero, goalkeeper Sreejesh, is mobbed by team-mates after his brilliant performance in the shootout in the final against Pakistan.-PTI

“It is a significant moment for Indian hockey,” observed the chief coach, Terry Walsh, after the match. Not the one given to hype and overt euphoria, the Aussie paid tribute to the “mental strength,” of the team that came back strongly after conceding an early goal to Pakistan. But for the Indian aficionados this was a fascinating and unforgettable moment.

There was, however, a view before the start of the tournament that India was the favourite based on its performances in the World Cup and Commonwealth Games. Pakistan was not on the international circuit for nearly a year following its failure to make it to the World Cup and missing the Commonwealth Games due to the internal squabbles.

Overall, India’s report card at the Incheon Asian Games cannot be described as eloquent. In fact, the team showed signs of struggle against Sri Lanka and Oman even though the margins of victories were big. Injuries to Chandi (against Sri Lanka) and Rupinder Pal Singh (against Oman) slightly disturbed the rhythm of the team. Rupinder was fit only for the semifinals, but the team management was cautious about fielding him for a full match.

What really pushed India to a new level after the defeat against Pakistan in the league stage was the opportunistic goal scored by Akashdeep Singh against Korea in the semifinals. Successfully upsetting the rhythm of the usually fast-moving Koreans by slowing them down with methodical efficiency, India’s late goal flabbergasted Korea.

A MOMENT TO RELISH. Indian women celebrate their victory against Japan in the bronze medal match.-AP

The final would not have gone down to the wire had India’s forwards not been prodigal in finishing. Sunil, Dharamvir and Ramandeep were below par. On the other hand, left-half Kothajit Singh came up with a stunner for the equaliser, and from hereon the Indians grew in confidence.

Understandably, it was a proud moment for Sardar Singh, the captain, to be on top of the podium. He was, however, not at his best always in the competition, and that commendation for consistency should go to Gurbaj Singh. Of course, the man of the tournament was goalkeeper Sreejesh, whose reputation has gone up by a few notches following his spectacular performance during the shootout. He made three brilliant saves in the match, two of which were in the shootout.

Pakistan’s chief coach, Sheikh Shahanz, who exuded confidence after beating India in the league, said that the isolation of Pakistan was limiting its opportunities of international competitions.

There were hints of recovery from the way Shakeel Abbasi, Abdul Haseem Khan and Omar Butt, not to speak of Imran and Irfran supported by goalkeeper Imran Bhat, performed.

For Korea, it was a devastating tournament. Though Korea’s confidence level was high given the quality of its squad, there was a sense of disbelief after it was beaten by India before the home crowd. Small wonder, many of the players were reduced tears after winning the bronze against Malaysia, which performed beyond expectations in the competition.

For the Indian women too it was a moment to relish. Beating Japan was no mean task and India did that to win the bronze medal. Neil Hawgood, the Indian coach, was elated by the result. The Australian gave the Indian players full credit for their level of physical fitness and consistency. If Jaspreet Kaur was splendid with the conversion of penalty corners, Ritu Rani deserves plaudits for managing the midfield with Monica very well. The energetic Rani always kept the frontline busy. All said and done, no one can grudge the bronze medal for India, which last won (a bronze) in 2006 Doha.

The only consolation for the home team was the gold medal it regained after 1998. China was the leader, winning three gold medals in a row, beginning 2002, but the Koreans succeeded in altering that script in Incheon.

China, which disbanded its senior team in order to build a new squad, was happy with the silver medal. While the Indian men and Korean women ensured their berths for the next Olympics, the rest are preparing to put up a good show in the World League in the hope of making it to 2016 Rio.

For Indian men and women, Incheon was a path-breaking event in more than one sense. How they build on it will be watched with interest.