Now the aim should be a berth for Athens Games

An Olympic berth in the Athens Games in August next is the immediate priority for Indian hockey.

An Olympic berth in the Athens Games in August next is the immediate priority for Indian hockey. Having ensured a spot for the next World Cup in 2006 by winning the Asia Cup last month, it goes without saying that India should concentrate on the qualifier at Madrid in the first fortnight of March 2004. This event, understandably, is perceived as the toughest challenge for teams that will eventually make the grade. That even the defending champion, the Netherlands, is among the 12 in the fray underlines the intensity of the competition that lies ahead.

The assessment at this point of time is that India should be among the six or seven qualifiers. This confidence stems from the quality of performance that India displayed throughout this year. The decision to stay away from the Azlan Shah Cup due to a Government directive was a setback to the preparation.

But the team recovered well to register some outstanding victories in the twin events in Australia and then won the four-nation Masters at Hamburg. Though India missed a medal at the Champions Trophy at Amstelveen, the displays, particularly against Pakistan in the first meeting, underlined the team's competence and class. That India failed to pick the bronze is a pity indeed.

The classic wins against Pakistan, in the final, and South Korea, in the semi-final, in the Asia Cup clearly showed that India is moving in the right direction. Never in recent decades has hockey acquired the image of a national sport, matching cricket in terms of media attention. True, this glare of publicity had some adverse effects. The spat between the coach and the captain on arrival in Chennai after the Asia Cup triumph showed the ugly side of the simmering differences stemming out of the publicity.

India missed the automatic Olympic berth by a whisker in the Busan Asian Games, conceding the match-winner to Korea, seconds before the hooter after a magnificent fightback. So now the strategy has to be worked out from the start.

Against this background, the decision to rest the seniors, notwithstanding the pressure from various quarters, for the Afro-Asian Games is to be welcomed. It is logical because, this decision gives the seasoned stars a bit of respite from the heavy schedule. Further it gives an opportunity to the coach to test the mettle of a few who could not make it to the team. Several talented ones like Sandeep Michael, Prabodh Tirkey, Arjun Halappa and the penalty flicker, Len Aiyappa, have been given a chance to gain international exposure.

The injury to Jugraj Singh after an auto-crash in September was indeed a big blow. The coach is perfectly right when saying that it is not easy to find a substitute, though Len Aiyappa has the best credentials. But the plus point is that at this point of time India has the most balanced team not only in linking the layers of defence and attack but also in blending youth and experience. Heartening has been the workouts of the trio, Gagan Ajit Singh, Prabhjot Singh and Deepak Thakur with Sandeep Michael, supported superbly in the midfield by Bimal Lakra, Ignace Tirkey and Viren Resquinha, and backed by the deep defence headed by Dilip Tirkey.

The team management as well as the administration should ensure that the preparations for the Olympic qualification should go without a hitch.Simply put, the training programme must be scientific and should be oriented towards giving the players an atmosphere to be in the best frame of mind. The administration should work out a consensus among the coaches, players and sponsors. The problems that surfaced when the team was training at Lucknow before the Champions Trophy, must be totally eliminated. It is time the chief coach, Rajinder Singh, realised that his stature goes up only when the players court success.

For the administration, the primary focus should be the welfare of the players who have to be nursed and protected. When planning for the qualifier, the Indian Hockey Federation must give adequate rest and recovery period for the players. Indiscriminate acceptance of invitations for tournaments often tax the players beyond their capacity of endurance and, in effect, produces negative results.

As it is, India has a commitment to figure in the Azlan Shah Trophy in early January and also a Test series against the Netherlands. Both the administration as well as the team management must weigh the options before committing the players to any programme that will have an adverse impact. The goal is now clear — a spot in the Olympics 2004.