Prompting a great deal of expectancy

THE best thing that has happened to hockey in the sub-continent is the revival of the India-Pakistan series.

THE best thing that has happened to hockey in the sub-continent is the revival of the India-Pakistan series. Last played in 1999, the seventh in the sequence, now in progress, represents the recognition of the value of such meetings to sustain the interest that the sport enjoys on both sides of the border.

Now that a breakthrough has been effected after a five year hiatus, it is imperative on the part of the administrators from both countries to evolve the means and methods to regularise the tours. This is easily said than done. The hurdles are many. Primary is the timing. Both India and Pakistan take part in several competitions every year making the time frame available for the series limited.

Priority must be accorded to the tour across the border and neither country should accept to participate in any tournament during the agreed period for the tour. Ideally, a fortnight between October-December could be slotted for this. It is also worthwhile to play the series in a third country like UAE, where marketing the matches will be economically rewarding for both as well as for the host.

Since the launch in 1978, thanks to the initiative of the then Presidents, M.A.M.Ramaswamy (India) and Air Marshal Nur Khan (Pakistan) the efficacy of intermittent exchanges has proved remarkable for both the nations. Apart from strengthening the sub-continental ethos for the sport, the tours ensured a degree of improvement in the approach and technique. The losses on account of the series being in a limbo since 1999 for no reason are many and distressing.

Is it not a pity that neither India nor Pakistan could figure in the semi-finals of the Olympics at Athens, or even win the pre-Olympic qualifier? Such rhetoric helps none in the high voltage arena of cut-throat international competitions. Only sustained and well programmed work produces the desired results as reflected in the maiden triumphs recorded by Australia and Germany in the men and women events at the Olympics.

It is heartening however to note that there has been some pragmatic thinking in the composition of teams. Notwithstanding the strain of criticism about hiring a foreign coach, both India and Pakistan have realised the need for such a step. Whether the right men were chosen for the job remains a point of debate, the consensus on the necessity to obtain fresh inputs in the matter of training, tactics and coaching is unquestioned.

The Dutch coach, Roelant Oltmans, who piloted the Netherlands to the Olympic and World Cup triumphs, is yet to give Pakistan a major title. In fact, the thrashing that Pakistan received at the hands of Spain and went out of the medal reckoning at Athens clearly put the Dutchman close to the exit gate. On the contrary, the tenure of India's German coach, Gerhard Rach, has been too brief to be subjected to such an evaluation.

Now that a new process has begun after the distressing phase in the Olympics, attention is being paid to inject fresh blood. India, for instance, perforce had to field an inexperienced team for the series consequent to the unavailability of the five recognised stars. The crop of youngsters who made the grade for the current series deserve their break. But it goes without saying that the rookies must grab the chances that had fallen on their lap as it were. For players like Prabhodh Tirkey, Vinay, and Vivek Gupta who were waiting in the wings, the series comes as a boon. So does it for Sandeep Micheal, Williams Xalco, Harpal Singh and Sundeep Singh to stabilise their claims to continue in the higher echelons of competition.

Pakistan was under no compulsion to effect such drastic structural changes as India. The retirement of Muhammad Nadeem who led the team at Athens and the sacking of the assistant coach, Tahir Zaman, did cause some stir however. But the real test for Pakistan comes when it hosts the Champions Trophy at Lahore in December. Only a trophy triumph here will convince the public opinion in favour of hiring a foreign coach. What is more, Pakistan is in uneviable situation of being forced to qualify for the next World Cup in Germany. And the agony does not end there. For the first time it did not even win a medal in the Asiad at Busan.

Viewed from any standpoint, the current Test series of eight matches should help chart the direction for development and programming for both countries marching towards the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the Asian Games in Qatar in the same year, not to speak of the next Olympics at Beijing. Small wonder, the resumption of the series has prompted a great deal of expectancy.