Rushing into a brave new world

INDIAN hockey is familiar with ad-hoc decision-making. Adrian D'Souza, the hottest goalkeeping talent today, is supposed to be one of the positives of such out-of-turn moves.

NANDAKUMAR MARAR

INDIAN hockey is familiar with ad-hoc decision-making. Adrian D'Souza, the hottest goalkeeping talent today, is supposed to be one of the positives of such out-of-turn moves. The youngster, pitchforked in 2002 from nowhere into a National senior camp for a Four-Nation event, had attracted Indian Hockey Federation chief K. P. S. Gill's attention on television then. The Bombay Gold Cup matches were telecast on Doordarshan, where Air-India won, stroking out Punjab Sind Bank in the semifinals and Indian Airlines in the final. Within two years, he is on the watchlist of penalty corner expert Sohail Abbas among others, after being adjudged the `best player' of the Indo-Pak series in Hyderabad.

Adrian D'Souza made a big leap from club level to world standard in two seasons. — Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

From club-level hockey to world standards in two seasons is a big leap. The Air-India custodian became first-choice goalkeeper for India at Athens Olympics at 20 and proved that despite international inexperience, was ready for every situation. "I am just taking it as it comes. The important thing is for the team to do well," said Adrian, emerging as a serious deterrent for drag-flick experts among penalty takers. Standing up to balls flying into the face at 110kmph is just an occupational hazard for goaltenders, the young Indian's agility and anticipation in rushing out off the goalline during penalty corners has been remarkable. At this point, he cannot be called a trend-setter but is making enough impact to attract second looks from hockey coaches and strategists.

Adrian is yet to meet his president individually since the 2002 call-up, conveyed via the AI team manager after the title was won, but capitalised on every opportunity as a way of saying thank you. "I met K. P. S. Gill as part of the team, when he came to see us at the Olympics," said the India custodian, looking forward to attending the camp for 2004 Champions Trophy in Lahore. About the Gold Cup and after, he said: "The camp was in New Delhi for a Four-Nation tournament in Australia. I was not chosen but the experience of playing with India probables was valuable." The wait was worth it, considering chances coming his way like a whirlwind — Azlan Shah Cup (Kuala Lumpur), Junior Asia Cup (Lahore), 2004 Olympics (Athens) and India-Pakistan series (home and away) — to name a few prominent ones.

He says aggression during penalty corners is a team decision, the basic intention being to force teams depending on drag-flick exponents into other options like indirect variations. "There is no point just standing on the goalline during penalty corners. The speed at which the ball is being dragged goalwards gives us little time to react. So why not pressurise the drag-flicker by charging out. If you are able to deny him a clear shot at target, chances of defending penalty corners are higher," said the India goalkeeper, whose instinctive reaction in those few seconds after take off was enough to make Sohail Abbas, one of the best in the business, do a re-think about the effectiveness of blasting the ball in first-time.

Pakistan's feared weapon, one of most respected players of his generation, managed seven goals in eight Indo-Pakistan series matches, a strike rate of just above one goal per game for the world hockey's highest goal-getter. "Sohail is a great player, friendly off the field. I didn't want him to get the world record (breaking Paul Litjens world mark of 267 international goals) against me, did my best to keep him away but couldn't prevent goal number 268," recalls the gung-ho lad about tactical tussles against the drag-flick maestro. "I am happy to have played a part in helping India reduce the Sohail Abbas threat." The Indian thinking, under German coach Gerard Rach, was to lure teams with penalty corner specialists like Pakistan away from direct shots, possibly towards indirect conversions or field goals.

Indian defenders try to thwart Pakistan forward Dilawar Abbas' (7) attempt as goalkeeper Adrian D'Souza (right) is all attention during the second hockey Test of the recent series. -- Pic. AP-

Adrian, aware about his way of rushing out at drag-flickers getting noticed, is also mentally prepared for counter-measures, devised by rival coaches watching India video tapes. "I know coaches will already be working out ways to beat my charge. Our team management is prepared. The rushing out tactic, with me attacking the drag-flicker and others playing their part, was used at Athens and again in the Pakistan series. So it was nothing new, yet Sohail was kept down to almost a goal per match. We are doing something right, I guess," observed the youngster whose favourite is Netherlands goalkeeper Guus Vogels, for his commanding presence under the bar. "I watched him at the Olympics, his body language is amazing. Looks unbeatable under the bar."

The India custodian is familiar with body language, in his case the focus is on forwards barging into the goalmouth. "Teun de Nooijer is the most difficult person to read. It is tough to anticipate his next move. I guess that is the reason why he is rated so high in world hockey," said Adrian, for whom 2004 Athens was his Olympic debut. "There are other international forwards who, after entering the `D', won't take a crack at the goal and centre the ball instead. A pattern has been noticed so our defence reacts accordingly." For one who became a hockey goalkeeper by accident in school, the St. Anne's HS (Orlem) youngster is just enjoying his first season on international stage. "I used to play on the school's football squad. Fr. Lawrie, our hockey coach, sought permission from my parents (Albert and Joyce D'Souza) to try me out as goalkeeper due to kicking skills. Winning the best goalkeeper award and receiving the prize from Olympian Mervyn Fernandes made it special."

Success in the first inter-schools event convinced him to remain under the bar. "Adrian is a creative goalkeeper. Even as a schoolboy, coaches would tell him certain points and he tried out different ways of doing things. I am happy he continues to think about the game," said Fr. Lawrie, reminding him about the dangers of success going to his head, a thought echoed by ex-international Darryl D'Souza, coach of the Air-India team under whom the Mumbai junior played the decisive Gold Cup. "Remaining humble is important for a sportsperson. I hope he remains the same Adrian we know," remarked the former India spearhead. "I first noticed at the Air-India Academy trials. He was a fast learner, able to look back at his own mistakes and improve. AI needed a goalkeeper then, so he was drafted in 2002 and was part of the winning squads in Nehru Cup and Gold Cup."

At a practice session with captain Dilip Tirkey (right). -- Pic. AFP-

Adrian recalled his New Delhi days. "I realised the importance of proper training at AI Academy, two sessions a day under Bansal Sir. India teams used to train there before flying out for international competitions, so sometimes I got to see them from close. I remember dreaming of playing like Jude Menezes one day after watching a World Cup camp. We stay in the same area in Mumbai but I had not seen him in action." Air India gave him a platform to perform, the academy experience and touring with AI infusing in the youngster confidence to take own decisions off-the field and reflex actions in the goalmouth. The talent spark was noticed by junior national coach Harender Singh who kept faith in the youngster (now employed with Bharat Petroleum) for 2004 Junior Asian Cup where India defeated Pakistan in a thrilling final.

Apart from Adrian, almost the entire Asia Cup performers graduated to the senior ranks and played the Indo-Pak series, resulting in cohesion and understanding under a new management (Rach and Jagbir Singh). Viren Rasquinha, fellow Mumbai international and teammate on the Olympics squad, referred to the young goalkeeper's ability to deliver on demand. "He is a natural talent, blessed with excellent reflexes and happens to be an excellent communicator.

The no-offside rule has made life difficult for defenders like us who can't have eyes at the back. It really helps to have a goalkeeper reading the game," said the midfielder-turned-defender. "Adrian got into the squad after the Dusseldorf Four-Nation Tournament before Athens. I remember his form against Germany, coming up with at least 10 sure saves in the 3-3 draw."

Goalkeeping is all about confidence and pressure-handling. Rasquinha points out that Adrian's strengths now are enthusiasm and attitude. "Adrian is enjoying the game. He is not the sort to spend too much time thinking about performances." The boy who gave up football for hockey, using kicking ability to thwart goals rather than score them, has kept in touch with roots and mates. After winning the `best player' award at Hyderabad, he called up mentor Marzban Patel of Bombay Republicans, who coaxed the Mumbai schoolboy to join the AI Academy and travelled all the way to Delhi with his ward for the trials. The day after reaching home, armed with happy memories and a lot of respect, he joined friends at a nearby beach. Life is just taking off for the young custodian, rushing into a brave, new world.