SHOWTIME, FOLKS

From Lahore in 1978 to Chennai in 2005, the Champions Trophy has navigated through an action-packed course, embellishing the competitive fervour across the globe, writes S. THYAGARAJAN

FASCINATING as it is, the fecundity of the Champions Trophy as competitive hockey's annual showpiece presents an enchanting panorama of style, system and strategy. It represents, in one stroke, as it were, the Alpha and Omega of proficiency, mirroring as it does the depth and dimensions of enlarging imagination, enviable ingenuity and delectable improvisation bordering on fantasy.

That the whole concept of a competition for the best six in the world evolved itself from a speck of thought by that visionary, Air Marshal Nur Khan needs to be remembered. When the idea was put across to the conservative administrative apparatus, which the then International Hockey Federation was, by the high priest of Pakistan's hockey establishment, A. I. S. Dara, during the third World Cup in Buenos Aires, not many were receptive to the suggestion. Coming as the blueprint did from an Asian entity itself prompted a degree of apprehension, if not total cynicism.

It took a lot of time for the suave Air Marshal to convince the FIH top brass of the format that was at once fresh and breathtaking. While some felt that a needless element of elitism was being enlisted to the community, the majority visualised the idea as a definite catalyst to accelerate the growth, opening new frontiers of excellence for the players.

Not only did Pakistan produce a vibrant plan but presented a superbly carved out trophy. What eventually carried the day for the Air Marshal and his team was the assurance that Pakistan would host the event till another country stepped in to pick up the baton and conduct it anytime if the FIH found there were no takers for the event.

The Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium is all set to host the Champions Trophy 2005.-VINO JOHN

The Champions Trophy surfaced at a time when the world of hockey was in a state flux. The period saw a revolution that ushered in the synthetic surface at the Olympics in Montreal in 1976. But, agonisingly, there were portents of hockey getting shoved out of the Olympic fold. The sport then required a space to enlarge its base, and the Champions Trophy clearly emerged as the motivating force.

Introspecting the ebb and flow of the competition since 1978 — November 17 is that red-letter day — brings before the mind's eye the epoch of proliferation of interest as also the degree of sophistication and professionalism that got embedded into the system. Every edition left an indelible imprint, a glittering page for posterity, a colourful canvas of epic duels etched by the profiles of heroes and heroics. The history of Champions Trophy cannot be and should not be studied against the background of facts and figures. Statistics are cold, heartless numbers that trigger a mental calibration of skills. But the competitive element must be evaluated with numbers that underscore the intensity and intrinsic worth of the matches.

Unique is the distinction of Australia and Pakistan. Both have figured in 25 out of the 26 editions. By opting out of the event last year in Lahore citing security concerns, Australia wantonly broke a great sequence, which otherwise would have given it a 26 out of 26. Pakistan missed out in 2000 after finishing last in the previous edition in Brisbane.

Eight trophy triumphs from 23 appearances convey the strength, power and systematisation of the sport in Germany. The mid-Eighties constitute its golden phase. This was the era when the Germans displayed an extraordinary degree of energy, enterprise and efficiency. Under the brilliance of Stefan Blocher, combined with the proficiency of players like Heiner Dopp and Eckhardt Schmidt, the Germans swept aside every opposition, recording a three-in-a-row from 1986.

Key player... Gagan Ajit Singh has to put his shoulder to the wheel if India is to stay in the hunt.-K. RAMESH BABU

Their immaculate junior programme kept the assembly line throbbing. Carsten Fischer and Andreas Keller carried the flag with distinction as the next set emerged in the mid-1990s around all-rounders such as Christian Mayerhofer, Christian Blunck, Christoph Bechmann, Clemens Arnold, who were followed by the likes of Florian Kunz, Michael Green, Sascha Reinalt and Bjorn Michel.

Australia and the Netherlands share the second slot with seven cup wins each. A force to reckon with since the 1970s, the Aussies hit a purple patch when superbly endowed stars like Ric Charlesworth, Terry Walsh, Colin Batch, David Bell, and Trevor King led them to a hat-trick of triumphs from 1983-85. And what more, they crowned themselves as the World Champions in 1986 at Willesden. The supremacy prolonged under the strength of players like Warren Birmingham, the indefatigable mid-fielder, and Mark Hager, a wonderful striker.

The Aussies were also served in an exemplary manner by dynamic coaches Richard Aggis, Frank Murray, Terry Walsh, and now Barry Dancer, who steered the team to the first ever Olympic gold. The combination today with players like Brent Livermore, Mike McCann, Grant Schubert and Craig Victory maintains that Aussie flavour and tradition.

The Dutch saga was triggered by the outstanding duo, Paul Litjens and Thies Kruize, who transformed the conversion of penalty corners into a connoisseur's delight. The first Dutch triumph came in 1981 in Karachi, prompting the KNHB to host the event at Amstelveen in 1982. Although the Dutch won the World Cup in 1990, thanks to the marvellous hitter, Floris Bovelander, it took another six years before the team could lay its hands on the Champions Trophy. Interestingly, it came in 1996 in Chennai, where coach Roelant Oltmans touched a new high, taking the team also to the top of the podium at the Olympics (1996) and the World Cup (1998).

No combination had emerged as powerful as the Dutch in the last decade, picking the trophy thrice since the turn of this century. The exit of Bovelander paved the way for hitters like Bram Lomans, finishers like Stephen Veen, and immaculate mid-fielders like Jerome Delmee. The best of them all is Teun de Nooijer, acknowledged as the best forward in contemporary hockey.

For all the talent and support secured, Pakistan's record, quite surprisingly, is poor with just three victories, the last coming in 1994, all on home soil. But stalwarts like Shahbaz Ahmed have always kept the interest alive. The team had been on the podium 15 times.

The emerging force is Spain, whose ascendancy is refreshingly striking for the last three years. The Dutch coach, Maurits Hendriks, has shaped an extremely efficient squad, whose capacity for improvisation has to be seen to be believed. Eduard Tabau and Pol Amat constitute the strike elements in the frontline, while Shanti Freixa's penalty corners can stun any goalkeeper. The exemplary control of the mid-field by Juan Escarre is another important factor.

Rehan Butt... India's nemesis.-VINO JOHN

That India has not gone beyond the bronze it secured in 1982 confirms a pathetic fact. The team missed a podium finish twice in recent times after a spectacular display against Pakistan in Cologne and Amstelveen. But that is no consolation to the thousands of followers at home and abroad. Even when the event was held here in 1996, India managed only a fourth place.

Beyond continental events, India has achieved nothing significant since 1980. A breakthrough is long overdue. Will the second edition in Chennai provide this, at least giving the team a bronze, that many reckon is not beyond the ken of a combination that boasts players in the calibre of Dilip Tirkey, Viren Resquinha and Gagan Ajit Singh.

From Lahore in 1978 to Chennai in 2005, the Champions Trophy has traversed an eventful course, embellishing the competitive fervour across the globe.