Starry show from starless PSB

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

The jubilant Punjab and Sind Bank team with the Rangaswamy Cup.-H. SATISH

THE success story of Punjab & Sind Bank in the 61st Senior National hockey (men) championship for the Rangaswamy Cup could be the beginning of a new chapter in Indian hockey. The team sans any big stars, put up a truly outstanding performance. It demonstrated the importance of having players who can live up to their potential and adapt to the changing needs on the field.

The reassuring presence of former India star Baljit Singh Saini on the right flank was no doubt a big influence on his team-mates, but it was apparent that they believed in collective effort, avoided flamboyance, and most importantly stuck to the basics. Quite interestingly, their route to the final was rather unobtrusive. Right through, the focus was on the big guns like Railways, star-studded Indian Airlines, Punjab and even the Indian Oil Corporation — which lost in the final.

The job of PSB coach Rajinder Singh (not the former India coach) was made easier as there was little pressure on his team by way of expectations, and it dominated the final. That PSB made even the normally efficient forward line of Deepak Thakur, Prabhjot Singh and Inderjit Singh Chadda look mediocre during the contest was itself a tribute to the efficacy of the half-line and the defence.

In the first session there were only two instances when IOC came close to scoring. And, compounding its woes was the yellow card suspension of Prabhjot Singh. Once PSB surged ahead when Navpreet Singh was spot on with a penalty-corner in the 19th minute, IOC was pushed to the defensive.

Only in the beginning of the second session did IOC show any aggressive intentions. That was when Deepak Thakur-Prabhjot Singh combine worked in tandem. But, they repeatedly ran into stubborn defence with the ever-reliable Devinder Singh proving to be the stumbling block with timely clearances, especially off the penalty-corners.

With one of the best goals of the championship, Gurvinder Singh sealed IOC's fate. Latching on to a loose ball from his own half, he went on a splendid solo run down the centre, hoodwinking the defenders. Then approaching the striking zone, he drew the goal-keeper out and confused him by delaying his strike before slotting the ball into the left-corner.

What went wrong with defending champion Indian Airlines? The absence of Dilip Tirkey was badly felt, especially in the penalty-corner conversions. Whatever little progress it made was due to the four-time Olympian Dhanraj Pillay, who showed his class in patches albeit at vital junctures.

Although mostly confined to the role of a feeder, Dhanraj was never found wanting in commitment. It was his stickwork and `authority' which enabled Airlines to defeat Air-India in the crucial superleague match and give it an entry into the semi-finals. If Airlines had lost to Air-India then it would have been first time after a long gap that it would have missed a semi-final appearance.

But, that even Dhanraj Pillay was rested for more than 20 minutes in the semi-final was a sad story on the fitness level of the Airlines team. "Everything went wrong for us. Our forwardline (Samir Dad, Brojen Singh and Arjun Halappa) could not penetrate into the `D'," said coach Ashok Kumar after the team was knocked out by IOC in the semi-finals.

Arjun Halappa missed a penalty stroke when the team was trailing 0-2 in the first-half. And, the scorching heat took its toll on the senior players. In most of the matches, Airlines virtually cruised through the first-half before being grounded in the second session. The reason being that the ageing players just did not have the desired fitness levels.

For Railways, the story was somewhat different — youngsters faltered in the semi-final. Even before the start of the event, coach and 1980 Moscow Olympics gold medallist V. Bhaskaran stressed on the fact that the team didn't have even a single India star for this tournament.

Railways might not have been impressive in the league phase but as the event progressed, it did show resilience with left-half Johnson Ekka, Amit Kumar and Amit Srivastava coming good when it mattered, in the early matches. The high point being the magnificent 3-2 win against Airlines in the superleague match after trailing 0-2 at half-time.

Captain Natarajan manned the midfield admirably while Prabhakar Singh, Amit Kumar and Amit Srivastava provided the thrust up front. Railways capitalised on the flagging fitness of Airlines in the second session to emerge winner. The goals came from Prabhakar, Amit Kumar and Shivendra Singh.

Indian Oil Corporation's Prabhjot Singh, who scored two goals, trying to dodge past the Indian Airlines defenders in the semi-finals.-H. SATISH

But, Air-India did a big favour to Airlines by scoring a surprise win over Railways in the second superleague match. But, unfortunately, it lost to Airlines in the next match which saw the latter enter the semi-final. Thus both Air-India and Railways missed the bus as the defending champions had scored more number of goals in the superleague to qualify.

At one stage, it seemed Punjab could emerge as the darkhorse. Star forward Gagan Ajit Singh scored at will, recording three consecutive hat-tricks in the first three matches in his tally of 16 goals from four matches in the early phase. Even in the knock-out, the impressive run continued.

However, when Punjab ran into more resilient opponents in IOC during the crucial superleague match, Gagan Ajit Singh's magic seemed to have deserted him. Bottled up by an aggressive defence, he had little freedom. Consequently the loss to IOC saw Punjab crash out. A result which also led to a brawl between IOC's defender Bikramjit Singh and Punjab's Gagan Ajit and Daljit Singh Dhillon. It later resulted in a ban of three months for Gagan and six months for Daljit.

Ignace Tirkey-led Services came very close to making a big impact. Its semi-final loss to PSB may not be really surprising considering the wonderful run the latter had in this edition. But that it squandered the early lead through a Chandrasekhar Xalxo penalty-corner hit was somewhat disappointing. Somehow, it could not stop the PSB combine of Kulvender Singh, Ravi Paul and Ajitpal Singh from repeatedly testing its defence.

The lone exception was Suresh Kumar in the forward line. But once PSB scored the equaliser in the 43rd minute through a penalty-corner conversion by Navpreet Singh, Services was on the defensive. The match-winner was itself an indicator of how much of planning went into PSB campaign in this edition. Off the sixth penalty-corner it earned, PSB confused the rival defence in a set-piece situation in which Saranjit Singh acted as a decoy by just pushing the ball to the waiting Navpreet Singh who was spot on with his drag flick. It ended Services' campaign.

For the teams from the South, it was a truly disappointing outing. Only Karnataka made it to the superleague before suffering two consecutive losses to bow out. Bengal spoiled Tamil Nadu's party by knocking it out through a golden goal from Junas Bara in a match which was clearly dominated by the former.

It was a story of missed chances since all the good work done by the forwardline of A. P. Vinod, Prabhakar and Gopinath was wasted by poor finishing. With the two teams tied one-all at the end of regulation time, the golden goal rule was applied. Even then it was Tamil Nadu which held sway but it was Bengal which scored the match-winner in the 83rd minute through Junas Bara, who caught the goalkeeper on the wrong foot with a wonderful angular effort on the run from the right of `D' after getting a neat through ball from Sunil Soren.

Host Hyderabad's only satisfaction was it reached the knock-out phase before being shown the gate by an enterprising Uttar Pradesh. Incidentally UP turned out to be the only team with a couple of really good youngsters. Andhra was in a way very unlucky to lose the knock-out match against Chandigarh after leading 2-0 thanks to goals by N. Sai Raj Singh and N. Bharat Kumar Rao.

Then controversial decision of the referee G. S. Sangha saw Chandigarh earn quite a few penalty-corners which helped them to wrap up the match 3-2. Sangha's judgement drew protests from Andhra camp and it even lodged official protest which was subsequently rejected on technical grounds. AHA president K. Jesudanam was dejected that his team was denied the satisfaction of qualifying for the superleague phase for the first time in the history.

From the south, Karnataka was the best. Clearly thriving on the penalty-corner conversion rate of Len Aiyappa and the speedy forwards Amar Aiyamma and Irshad Ali, it recovered remarkably well after the early loss at the hands of Jammu & Kashmir. Though it qualified for the superleague, it suffered two losses to Services and Namdharis, to go out of reckoning.