Railways unstoppable

RAILWAYS rumbled as usual. It has become a routine at the women's National hockey championship for the last two decades.

KIRTI PATIL

The Indian Railways team which won its 19th straight title. — Pic. V. SUDERSHAN-

RAILWAYS rumbled as usual. It has become a routine at the women's National hockey championship for the last two decades. And the 2003 Lucknow National championship was no exception as Railways won its 19th straight title, thrashing Indian Universities 6-0, the scoreline demeaning the importance of the final.

The quality of play, though, was markedly decent, if not spectacular, given that the entire lineup of the Indian team was appearing for Railways.

Competing against Railways was a combination of amateur girls from seven different universities. They had assembled as a team only 10 days prior to the championship, so their ascent to the summit clash was all the more outstanding.

For long, the universities, a source of fresh talent, have been neglected by those who run Indian sports. That the current management at the AIU has been sympathetic towards sports, is a welcome tide.

The hockey aficionados have to take notice of the virtuous performance dished out by the novice university team. The need is to have a bridge between the sports administrators and the AIU, which should result in a continuous flow of talent onto the sporting field.

Will this be a one-time performance of the university side? The university coach, Wazir Chand, in the AIU, has a different view. "We have made a modest but remarkable start. Next time I want to have a team chosen from 20 or more universities and shake the Railways' pedestal," he said. "It is not easy to beat Railways, but it is also not impossible. If we (universities) get enough time to play as a team and participate in other tournaments too, we can do better in the Nationals," Wazir said.

Sounds interesting, but at the moment, it may be farfetched to think that Railways could be tamed. The excellent performance of Railways stems from the fact that it is the biggest employer and those who perform well always find a berth in it.

By this virtue, Railways' clout in women's hockey is undeniable. It was so much evident, as always, in the 52nd edition of the championship, held at the Dhyanchand Stadium situated in the sprawling complex of the Guru Gobind Singh Sports College, Lucknow.

Is the routine of a Railways win making the championship boring? Maybe, to some extent. The solution lies in experimenting with the format. Instead of sticking to the traditional league-cum-knockout plan, the Indian Women's Hockey Federation (IWHF) should follow a different pattern. It should have a separate league for lesser teams and give them an incentive of qualifying for the super league where squads such as Railways, Haryana, Punjab, Orissa and Delhi would be the direct entrants. This will make the championship more competitive and interesting too.

There was no justification in grouping Railways with Chhattisgarh and Bhopal; Haryana with Andhra Pradesh and Manipur; Delhi with Gujarat and Bihar; and Punjab with Kerala and Maharashtra.

In such a scenario, one need not be an expert to identify Railways, Haryana, Delhi and Punjab as the quarterfinalists, even before the competition started. The IWHF, it seems, was short of sponsors to conduct the pre-tournament zonals, which ensures that only a handful of quality teams participate in the Nationals. In that case, the format used in the volleyball Nationals would have provided a ready answer.

Railways' Sanggai Ibemhal Chanu (extreme right) scoops the ball over Indian Universities' goalkeeper Neha in the final. The ball went into the net. Chanu scored another goal, too, as Railways drubbed Indian Universities 6-0. — Pic. V. SUDERSHAN-

As the minor teams were posted against the mighty, goals came in abundance. Three hundred and sixtytwo goals were scored in 41 matches at an average of 8.83 goals per match. In the 2002 Jalandhar Nationals, the average was 6.42 with 122 goals in 19 matches.

The higher average surely does not reflect a good competition. There was such a huge disparity between the two league outfits that one team scored goals at will, while the other looked hapless.

Former India captain and the evergreen striker, Pritam Rani Siwach, revelled in such a situation, top-scoring with 20 goals. She was followed by Chandigarh's Prakash Chaudhary, who scored 19 goals including a 12-goal burst against Bundelkhand. But Prakash's efforts were not enough to carry Chandigarh into the quarterfinals. In the Jalandhar Nationals, Jyoti Sunita Kullu was the leading scorer with nine goals.

In Lucknow, Jyoti had seven goals coming off her stick, including a hat-trick, in the semifinals against Haryana. Jyoti seemed stranded without her regular partners — Mamta Kharab and Surinder Kaur. Mamta was recuperating from a knee injury, while Surinder was away in Japan, leading the Indian junior side in an international tournament.

In the absence of two key forwards, Railways relied on its seasoned campaigners, Pritam and captain Suraj Lata Devi. It wasn't as if Jyoti had no role to play. With Pritam also assuming the role of a play-maker, youngsters such as Jyoti, Sanggai Ibemhal Chanu and Meenakshi got a `free roaming' access in the opposition area.

Of the three, Sanggai was brilliant. Her knack of seizing the ball and running `snake-like', beating the defenders, fetched several goals for Railways. Pritam was the prime benefactor of Sanggai's hard work, though.

The absence of two key strikers also gave debutant Meenakshi a place in Railways' starting lineup. She held the right-out position in good stead with veteran Manjinder Kaur assisting her run-up.

Railways bulldozed Bhopal and Chhattisgarh in the league matches, and then tamed Orissa 10-1, in the quarterfinals.

In the same half of the draw, Haryana rose unchallenged against AP and Manipur. The much-hyped Uttar Pradesh was Haryana's next hurdle, in the quarterfinals. Haryana cleared it without much ado, setting up a semifinal showdown against Railways.

Given the strengths of the teams, a final between Railways and Haryana would have been ideal. But the semifinal loss to Punjab in the 2002 Jalandhar Nationals will haunt Haryana for many years to come, unless of course the IWHF decides to change the format.

The current National Games champion, Haryana, finished third beating Mumbai, which meant it was destined to meet Railways, the top seed, in the semifinals itself.

Indian Universities' Sadhana Singh (right) tries to get past Punjab's Mandip Kaur during the semi-finals. — Pic. V. SUDERSHAN-

Striker Balwinder Kaur had been Haryana's top-scorer while Saravjeet Kaur Jr. served a notice of the emergence of yet another worthy mid-fielder.

But that wasn't enough to stop Railways. Jyoti Sunita Kullu blasted three successive goals as Railways raced to 3-0, and then consolidated the lead to 5-0. In the bottom half, Indian Universities crawled up steadily after beating last year's semifinalist, Mumbai, 1-0, in its opening league match.

Unfortunately, its quarterfinal against Karnataka had to be decided on a debatable `golden goal' as the two teams were locked 2-2 at the end of the regulation time. It progressed with a 3-2 decision following the 83rd minute goal.

Universities' semifinal opponent, Punjab, looked a pale shadow of its former self. After beating minnows, Kerala and Maharashtra, in the league, Punjab was lucky to have got past Delhi 1-0, in the quarterfinals. Delhi played much better than Punjab, but a lucky goal sealed Delhi's fortune.

Indian Universities held an edge throughout against Punjab and it was no fluke that the team won 1-0. It was the third time the universities side had made it to the final of the Nationals. Earlier, it reached there in the 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons. And, on both the occasions, in Chandigarh and Jabalpur, Universities had lost to Punjab.

It was about time Indian Universities rewrote that 25-year-old blot, what if it was a semifinal.

In the final, there hardly was any second opinion on who would win. Railways held a clear upper hand as its defenders, Suraj Lata and Masira Surin, almost rendered the university strikers, Sadhana Singh and Sandeep Kaur, jobless.

This kept Railways' front-line up on the move. Sanggai came up with two goals as the final literally meandered into a Railways' road-show.

This effort by Railways' Jyoti Sunita Kullu (right) past the diving Haryana goalkeeper Ritu Rani found the target in the semi-finals. Jyoti scored thrice in Railways' 5-2 victory. — Pic. V. SUDERSHAN-

Haryana again took the third position, this time beating Punjab 3-1, to settle the scores of the Jalandhar Nationals. But then, next time on, it will again be logged in Railways' half.

The results:

Final: Railways 6 (Sanggai Ibemhal Chanu 2 — 40th and 68th, Suman Bala 4th, Kamala Dalal 27th, Sumrai Tete 34th, Manjinder Kaur 47th) beat Indian Universities 0.

For third place: Haryana 3 (Harjinder Kaur 21st, Ramneek Kaur 36th, Balwinder Kaur 62nd) beat Punjab 1 (Baljit Kaur 69th).

Semifinals: Indian Universities 1 (M. Rajneesh 45th) beat Punjab 0; Railways 5 (Jyoti Sunita Kullu 3 — 12th, 25th, 37th, Pritam Rani Siwach 2 — 42nd, 50th) beat Haryana 2 (Balwinder Kaur 55th, Arti Sharma 68th).

Quarterfinals: Railways 10 (Pritam Rani Siwach 5, Adeline Kerketta 2, Jyoti Sunita Kullu, Suman Bala, Sanggai Ibemhal Chanu) beat Orissa 1 (T. Bahamani); Haryana 3 (Ramneek Kaur, Arti Sharma, Kiran Saini) beat Uttar Pradesh 0; Indian Universities 3 (Sandeep Kaur 2, D. Poonam) beat Karnataka 2 (Lakshmishree, S. M. Jaya); Punjab 1 (Baljit Kaur) beat Delhi 0.

League points tally (read as matches played, won, drawn, lost, goals for, goals against, points):

Pool A: Railways 2-2-0-0-31-0-6; Bhopal 2-1-0-1-1-14-3; Chhattisgarh 2-0-0-2-0-18-0.

Pool B: Uttar Pradesh 3-2-1-0-31-2-7; Air India 3-2-1-0-27-1-7; Himachal Pradesh 3-1-0-2-10-23-3; Rajasthan 3-0-0-3-0-51-0.

Pool C: Orissa 3-3-0-0-51-2-9; Chandigarh 3-2-0-1-41-4-6; Uttaranchal 3-1-0-2-5-38-3; Bundelkhand 3-0-0-3-0-53-0.

Pool D: Haryana 2-2-0-0-30-0-6; Manipur 2-1-0-1-6-11-3; Andhra Pradesh 2-0-0-2-1-26-0.

Pool E: Indian Universities 3-3-0-0-16-0-9; Mumbai 3-2-0-1-14-1-6; Tamil Nadu 3-1-0-2-13-9-3; Vidarbha 3-0-0-3-0-33-0.

Pool F: Delhi 2-2-0-0-11-0-6; Bihar 2-0-1-1-1-6-1; Gujarat 2-0-1-1-1-7-1.

Pool G: Karnataka 2-1-1-0-6-1-4; Jharkhand 2-1-1-0-5-2-4; PEPSU 2-0-0-2-1-9-0.

Pool H: Punjab 2-2-0-0-18-0-6; Kerala 2-1-0-1-4-10-3; Maharashtra 2-0-0-2-0-12-0.