Spotlight on Asian teams

Indian players celebrate after winning the Sultan Azlan Shah trophy in Malaysia last year. Will they recreate the performance at the World Cup in New Delhi?-AP ?

For India to come up with a decent performance in front of the home crowd, it needs to have the passion to conquer. It has to set aside all its differences and concern over payments. Rewards necessarily follow only achievements, writes S. Thyagarajan.

Will it be a hat-trick for Germany? Can Holland regain the cup? Is this the best chance for Australia to win the pennant again? Can England or Spain etch its name on the magnificent trophy? Where does Asia stand in the power equation? Well, posers such as these are as puzzling as they are varied, as the teams are poised to have a go at the handsome World Cup in New Delhi.

It is interesting to examine the Asian component. The last win for the continent in the World Cup came in 1994 in Sydney when Pakistan overwhelmed Holland. India tumbled down the ladder consistently after that remarkable hour in the 1975 World Cup in Kuala Lumpur. The South Koreans raised hopes by their sheer resilience but are yet to win a medal despite figuring twice in the semifinals (2002 and 2006).

The 12th edition of the tournament returns to the sub-continent after two decades since Pakistan held it last in 1990 in Lahore. India is hosting the championship for the second time — it last hosted the World Cup nearly three decades ago in Bombay in 1981-82. So much has happened since then. Many are predictably wondering what is in store for the Asian outfits in New Delhi.

At No. 5, Korea is the highest-ranked team from Asia. It was also an automatic qualifier after winning the Asia Cup in Kuantan (Malaysia) last year. Korea is one team that does not rely on stars to perform. As a combined force, Korea is a formidable opponent and is fighting fit after the recent series in Australia. The team’s strength is in putting up a tight defensive phalanx and launching a quick counterattack. Korea’s another area of strength is in executing penalty corners. A Nam Hyun Woo or Jong Ho can change the course of a match in seconds.

Pakistan’s strike force... Rehan Butt (left) will lead his team’s improved attack in New Delhi.-M. VEDHAN

For all the internal struggles and administrative imbroglio, Pakistan, ranked No. 7, has recovered remarkably after an appalling show at the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament. The move to bring back its senior players, notably the record holder in penalty corners, Sohail Abbas, has proved profitable. The team has regained a modicum of its flair, fluency and finesse thanks to the improved attack led by Rehan Bhatt and well assisted by players of the calibre of Shakeel Abbasi and Muhammad Zubair.

Drawn in a pool that includes India, Australia, England, Spain and South Africa, Pakistan’s progress rests on the verdict of its opening game against India. The team’s trump card is Sohail Abbas, but how much prowess this old war horse retains is the big question. Pakistan qualified for the World Cup after sealing the first place in the qualifier in Lille (France). Subsequently, it missed the chance to get into the top six for the Champions Trophy by a whisker in the Champions Challenge in Salta.

If scepticism surfaces with a touch of spontaneity while evaluating India’s chances, it is in no small measure due to the events that hampered the preparation of the team under the foreign coach Jose Brasa. There were too many distractions in the run-up to the World Cup, and some of them continue to haunt the team.

One cursory reading shows that experience is the key factor that influenced the selection of the Indian team. A majority of the players have sufficient experience. Continuous exposure has steeled them enough. However, India’s performance has a streak of inconsistency: a trophy triumph at the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament was followed by its worst ever showing in the 2009 Asia Cup, where the team finished fifth. Matches in Europe and Argentina have done a world of good, but the Indian team has not been able to capitalise on these advantages in the face of the controversy over payment to the players and the captaincy issue, not to speak of the administrative mess.

Goalkeeping is an area of concern with Baljit Singh nursing an eye injury. A heavy burden is on Adrian D’Souza. While there is no denying the proficiency of Sandeep Singh, Diwakar Ram and Mahadik in executing penalty corners, the quality of India’s defensive work to thwart the surges of the rival teams, notably Pakistan, Spain and Australia, is unpredictable.

The midfield is well equipped thanks to Gurbaj and the support of Sardara, Halappa and Vikram. However, it goes without saying that the whole edifice rests on the strength of the frontline consisting of Tushar, Rajpal, Shivendera, Prabhjot and Deepak. They all can be brilliant on a given day but unless they achieve the most important element — harmony and heavy strike rate — the whole effort will go futile with devastating consequences.

What is essential for the Indian team to come up with a decent performance in front of the home crowd is the passion to conquer, setting aside all their differences and concern over payments. Rewards necessarily follow only achievements.

AMERICAN ZONE

With the halcyon days of Jorge Lombi, reckoned by many as the author of the drag flick, receding into the background, Argentina had to endure a lot of uncertainty before making it to New Delhi. Canada succeeded in taking the automatic qualifier spot, both for the Olympics and the World Cup, putting the more famous Argentina in a spot of bother.

Tenth in the last edition at Monchengladbach and failing to hit the spot at the Pan American Games, Argentina managed to sneak in after pushing aside Belgium in the qualifier in Quilmas. Enigmatic and enterprising, the Argentine players have always projected an element of elegance in their approach.

In the current squad the man who symbolises this extraordinary trait is none other than the skipper, Mario Almada. Some of the goals he had struck underline the meaning of the epithet, spectacular. Pedro Ibarra is a fine penalty corner striker while Rossi is an opportunist. Argentina has the credit of participating in all the 11 previous editions, twice finishing in the sixth place.

Canada, on the contrary, has figured only in four editions, with its best finish being eighth in 1998. It returns to the fold as the Pan-American champion. It is ranked No. 11, three places above Argentina (No. 14).

AFRICA

South Africa, the top team in the continent, has taken part in three editions, beginning Sydney 1994. In 2006, South Africa was last on the table without winning a game.