Punjab's moment of glory

A jubilant Punjab team after winning the National title.-V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

Punjab’s satisfaction in the outcome was perhaps greater for the fact that this was a young squad that had outdone a unit brimming with experience. By Shreedutta Chidananda.

The last step may not have been taken emphatically, but at the end of it all there weren’t many who felt Punjab did not deserve the top prize.

Air India’s V. S. Vinaya deflected the ball into his own net in the second minute of extra-time to hand Punjab a 2-1 win in the final and thus the 2nd Hockey India Senior National Championship. The goal felt oddly soft, a tensely anticipated sudden-death period concluding imperceptibly, almost as soon as it began.

Coach Baljit Singh Saini’s men, though, had played the better hockey — not by much, but by just enough for victory to feel merited. Saini had set his side up to defend during the first half, a method at odds with the buccaneering approach of previous games, before reverting to something like normal.

“It was always going to be a tough match because Air India is a much more experienced team than ours,” he explained afterwards. “So our strategy was mainly defensive in the first half. In the second, we started pressing full-court and that paid dividends.”

Punjab’s satisfaction in the outcome was perhaps greater for the fact that this was a young squad that had outdone a unit brimming with experience.

“It really excites me as well,” Saini gushed. “Seven of these boys were in the team that won the Junior National title (in Lucknow, only two weeks earlier). They have a lot of potential.”

Of this lot, Gurjinder Singh (declared Best Defender) stood out, and not just because of his visibility as a drag-flicker. The 19-year-old’s penalty corner conversions were all emphatic in their execution — there was nothing even remotely borderline.

He scored nine goals in all, including two drag-flicks in the semifinal against Haryana, burying both in a different part of the net, the goalkeeper left without a chance.

Akashdeep Singh, positioned at the apex of a young forward trio that included the excellent Satbir Singh and Prabhdeep Singh, also had a fine tournament, scoring 10 times and tormenting defences all round. Skipper of the India team at the 7th Junior Asia Cup in Malaysia earlier this year, Akashdeep promises much for the future.

The Punjab captain, Sarvanjit Singh, deemed good enough to be only on stand-by for the Olympics, delivered a series of fine performances, leading the way for his young charges on the field.

Where Air India perhaps lacked youthful vigour, it compensated with experience. It was indeed the latter quality that had helped it prevail over the host in an acrimonious semifinal.

Two goals up and cruising with 20 minutes to go, Karnataka was — and that was the prevailing feeling — hard done by when the opponent was awarded a penalty stroke.

Arjun Halappa converted that one, and a second (albeit less questionable) stroke 11 minutes later.

Versatile Gurjinder Singh of Punjab with the Best Defender award.-V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

Umpire Ripudaman Sharma further antagonised the home crowd by awarding a hugely contentious penalty corner, which V.S. Vinaya duly put away, on the brink of time. Tempers boiled over, captains Halappa and V. R. Raghunath both yellow-carded.

Karnataka, runner-up last year, had been one of the favourites for the title. The forward Nitin Thimmaiah was excellent throughout, while Vikram Kanth proved his quality in the middle of the pitch. The home side eventually finished third, defeating defending champion Haryana — which seemed to go strangely limp in its last two games — in the play-off.

While Hockey India will be keen to call its 2nd Senior National Championship a success, what cannot be ignored is the contribution of the World Series Hockey-contracted players to it.

Ravipal Singh (Punjab), Bharat Chikkara (Haryana), and Halappa (Air India) et al were outstanding for their sides and produced a reminder of what they can still offer to the game. Meanwhile, Gurjinder, who starred in the first edition of WSH, is now rumoured to be close to a call-up to the India camp after having ‘apologised’.

The Nationals, according to HI, have been treated as trials to select probables for the camp ahead of the Champions Trophy (Melbourne, Dec 1 to 9) and the Asian Champions Trophy (Doha, Dec 14 to 21).

If WSH players were never in the reckoning for national duty, why they were allowed participation in the Senior Nationals at all remains a question.

That Halappa, adjudged the Best Forward in Bangalore this week, should then not find a place in the India camp (he is certain not to as things stand), is a wonderful irony.

The Results * * *

Final: Punjab 2 (Prabhdeep Singh 36, OG 72) bt Air India 1 (V.S. Vinaya 38). Extra time.

Third place playoff: Karnataka 2 (M. B. Aiyappa 24, V. R. Raghunath 41) bt Haryana 1 (Sardar Singh 60).

Semifinals: Karnataka 2 (Pundalik Bellary 32, Nitin Thimmaiah 44) lost to Air India 3 (Arjun Halappa 50, 61, V. S. Vinaya 70); Punjab 4 (Gurjinder Singh 15, 21, Sarvanjit Singh 51, Satbir Singh 55) bt Haryana 1 (Naveen Antil 58).

Special awards: Best Defender: Gurjinder Singh; Best Forward: Arjun Halappa; Player of the Tournament: M. B. Aiyappa.

* * *

S. SUBRAMANIUM

Farcical finishes and no-shows

While the knock-outs served up some exciting fare, the group stages were characterised by an awfully large number of lopsided contests. 21 games were won by 10-goal margins or more, 13 by at least 15 goals, and five by a farcical 20 or more! The biggest wins were Tamil Nadu’s 25-1 flogging of a truly hapless Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh’s 24-0 result over Tripura.

* * *

Sensibly, Hockey India will introduce a two-tier system at the next edition. HI Secretary General Narinder Batra (right, in pic.) revealed that there were plans to seed 12 teams, handing them a direct entry into round two, with four of the rest to advance from round one.

* * *

At least Gujarat and Tripura turned up and then managed to hang around for the whole of the competition. After a no-show for the tournament’s very first game, Arunachal Pradesh pulled out on the second day — the organisers until then unaware — of the Nationals.

Meanwhile, Chhattisgarh, also from the same group, was sent home in disgrace after an off-the-field incident involving its players. Four of them were involved in a fracas in the wee hours of the morning outside their lodgings. The players, who have not been named, are alleged to have gone out to dinner, returned after midnight, and then picked up a quarrel with their auto-rickshaw driver (who rounded up other drivers). Matters, according to Hockey Karnataka officials, escalated to such an extent that the police were called to intervene.

Although Chhattisgarh was expelled the very next afternoon (after being allowed to play a 7 a.m. game) and packed off by train, the organisers made no mention of the incident until a whole day later.