Our chances are high - V. Baskaran

THOSE 96 seconds in which India surrendered its 2-1 lead against Poland in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 still haunts him. The match ended in a draw, evoking bitter memories.

For the former India captain, Pargat Singh, who had experienced similar moments during his playing days, India's failure to miss a semifinal is unsettling.

Against this background, Pargat is pragmatic, albeit cautious when assessing India's chances in the World Cup.

"For a side, which is yet to perform consistently, a place in the top six would be creditable. Yes, the Junior World Cup victory was special, but we should not read too much into the Champions Challenge win. We are still struggling and facing a lot of competition as we try to re-establish ourselves among the elite group."

What worries Pargat is the lack of consistency and the ability to perform in big tournaments. This has been the bane for quite some time. Pargat recalled the experience of the 1992 Olympic Games. "We had won 13 of the 15 matches on the European tour prior to the Olympics. But we all know what happened at the Olympics."

Pargat felt that India needed more match-practice against the top sides to fine-tune itself for the World Cup. "We haven't played against the top sides regularly. In this World Cup, we will play nine matches (seven in the league stage). If we have to qualify for the semifinals, we need to be sharp throughout.

"We have to be different (tactically). We seem to expose ourselves against some of the lesser known sides and also give undue advantage to tougher opponents," says Pargat.

The emergence of Deepak Thakur should prove to be an asset. "Deepak lends a lot of strength. He is more versatile and gives more options."

On the strategy of using Dhanraj Pillay along with the two youngsters: "We have to use Dhanraj in spells. He has to be sharp till the closing stages, and for this, he needs to be given breaks."

The weakness of losing possession in the closing stages: "This is one area we need to work on. For this, seniors like Baljit Singh Dhillon and Dhanraj have to tell the youngsters to remain level-headed. Rolling substitutions, adjustments according to the situation are very important."

Pargat felt that the Indian side, though it contained many players just out of the junior ranks, did not lack in experience. "Devesh Chauhan (goalkeeper) and Deepak were there in Sydney, too. The rest have played a lot of four and six-nation tournaments. So they already have enough exposure. Yes, our midfield looks quite inexperienced but that's where Baljit Singh Saini, Thirumalvalan, S. S. Gill and even Baljit Singh Dhillon will have to hold the side together."

"I have seen Jugraj and Kanwalpreet Singh but Tirkey is still by far the most experienced. A side always needs a sound tackler and Tirkey is well equipped."

On the crucial aspect of penalty-corners, "We have Jugraj and Baljit Singh Dhillon. Conversions are mainly through scoops or hits and indirect is only meant for variation. With young Jugraj, if our direct conversion is better, then we will surely benefit."

Australia, Korea and Poland are the main threats for India in the league stage, "Korea is most dangerous due its speed and destructive hockey. Australia is a top side and Poland has improved a lot. Apart from these three, I would club England and Malaysia as the next two and finally Cuba and Japan to be among the weakest opponents."

Pargat finds it tough to be away from the action. He is planning to go to Kuala Lumpur. "I will be there. I hope we perform well." - As told to Ritesh Gupta

IN my recent memory, I don't think any other Indian team had such a good chance of winning the World Cup as the current one. Indian hockey is on a new high and the icing on the cake was the Junior World Cup triumph at Hobart. The support IHF is giving to players is also to be appreciated. The onus is on the players to perform.

There can be no better stage than the World Cup to rise to the occasion. If critics still believe that the 1998 Bangkok Asiad gold, after a gap of 32 years, was a fluke, this Indian team should silence them with a dream performance. I don't see any reason why we cannot do it.

The camp under the supervision of chief coach Cedric D' Souza should have given a fair hint to the players about their priorities and what is expected of them. Definitely, the forwardline comprising the most experienced Dhanraj Pillay along with Dhillon, Halappa, Bipin Fernandez should play a key role in the team's strategy. A lot depends on the coach in terms of getting the team click as one. As was evident in the past, individually there are many exceptional players but the need is collective effort. There should not be too many changes. Whatever best the coach had identified in the camp, they should be persisted with in World Cup. This is where I strongly feel that Cedric should involve all the seniors and give necessary importance to the valuable suggestions. Afterall, experience of playing out there in the middle in different tight situations is something only the players feel and can put it across better.

The area of focus could be the 16-yard hits. This is one area where we have been traditionally weak. The problem in that is we tend to mishit too many and lose ball control. This gives the rivals undue advantage. If we avoid mispasses, half the battle is won for very few teams can match us in terms of stickwork and artistry. When it is well-known that we lag behind in speed and stamina in crunch situations, these mispasses could be easily avoided.

Penalty-corner conversion is another major area where there is plenty of scope for improvement. This is where Cedric's vast coaching experience and expertise should come in handy. He is very good in giving the players at least five set-pieces. Baljit Singh Dhillon should be given the responsibility here. But, what is important is how well we execute them on the field, under pressure. The growing stature of penalty-corner expert Jugraj Singh will be of added value and should be a big asset as his confidence level is pretty high after the crucial role he played in the Junior World Cup. However, I feel he could be used effectively as 'dummy' and surprise element.

There is talk about the possibility that the Indians may cave in because of the pressure arising out of expectations. But, I don't think this should be a source of worry as long as the players stay focussed on the job. There can be no better feeling than winning the World Cup, and in fact most of them should derive inspiration from the fact that India won the Cup last time at Kuala Lumpur in 1975. From my experience, I can vouche that in most of the major championships India's woes doubled up because of the dismal performances against weaker teams. And, remember most of the teams in this World Cup have more new faces than us. Our team is packed with perfect blend of vast experience and youthful exuberance. India should stand to gain immensely from the plain truth that most of the boys have been playing together for nearly five years which is not the case with other teams. Fortunately, the wonderful exposure the juniors got before being selected for this major assignment is a major plus point. We should play to our strong points and not to try to master areas where we are really weak in a major event. Play to our strength and not the weaknesses.

It is time all the good work done during the preparatory camp is translated into performance on the field. I will not be surprised if India wins the World Cup, for, the team has the class and the ability.

In Bangkok, we won the Asiad gold after a gap of 32 years. Why shouldn't we be optimistic of winning the Cup in a country where India won the last time exactly 27 years back? - as told to V. V. Subrahmanyam

I WOULD say the chances of India claiming the World Cup are high. A cursory glance at the draw will prove why I am saying this. India is grouped with 'lesser skilled' teams such as Japan, Cuba, Malaysia and Poland, while Pakistan, Germany and the Netherlands are having a good penalty conversion rate are in the other group.

If we play confidently and to our potential, 12 points from four matches are guaranteed. India might find it difficult against relatively better teams (in same group) like Australia, Korea and England, but even then a draw against these three will be enough to pitchfork it to the last four.

This injury-free Indian team is a fine blend of youth and experience. However, there are some players, who in my opinion, will have to play a crucial role. Midfielder Baljit Singh Saini is a special one, the trump-card. He has to play the role of a linkman. Then comes goal-keeper, Jude Menezes, and the veteran who will be playing in his fourth World Cup - an outstanding performer - Dhanraj Pillay. These three, with adequate help from established youngsters like Jugraj Singh, Deepak Thakur, will have to produce their best.

An added advantage is the system of having 18 players which gives more options to replace and shuffle the team - this will be beneficial for the Asian style.

India's drawback, I would say, has been lack of focus, the inability to regroup quickly after conceding a goal, and numerous unwanted free hits. Whenever India concedes a goal, it gets bogged down, focus is lost, and as a result regrouping becomes difficult. India can learn a lot from Australia on how to regroup quickly when things are going badly.

I remember vividly the last World Cup in 1998 at Utrecht. I was the coach then. We were leading 3-2 against Korea in the last league match, a victory would have put us in the semifinal. One needless free hit enabled Korea to get possession of the ball and level scores which put us out of contention.

I have learnt that this Indian team through camps in Chennai has made all efforts to overcome these shortcomings. All said and done, World Cup is different, and the pressure to perform will be there. But with everything starting from the draw going in India's favour, I see no reason why we cannot regain the trophy. - As told to K. Keerthivasan