Stealing the thunder in Cologne

NANDAKUMAR MARAR

VINO JOHN

THE Champions Trophy brought out the best in Dhanraj Pillay. The maverick striker-turned-playmaker featured in four editions from Berlin 1995 to Amsterdam 2003. His best moment of the championships came in Cologne 2002 where he was named the `Best Player' — the first Indian to be chosen for the honours. The applause continued in Amsterdam, cementing his place in the hearts of European hockey followers.

Germany was a familiar territory for him in 2002, having had a stint with Stuttgart in the hockey Bundesliga. "Cologne was a new venue for me. The German league experience helped fine tune my game. Mental adjustment is vital and playing with Stuttgart gave me an idea of how European defences behave. I knew when to play the dodge without hurting the team's cause in case we lost ball possession, and when to pass," Dhanraj said.

Fortunately for India, coach Rajinder Singh's approach to attacking hockey and availability of speedy strikers enhanced Dhanraj's utility to the side.

India's attacking instincts took hockey to a new level in front of a mesmerised Cologne crowds. In that stirring league match against Pakistan, India came through 3-2 winners. Dhanraj came up with a special slalom, starting from beyond the centreline and going past seven players before setting up Prabhjot for a strike. "I beat one player with a dodge, found space to move up and beat another. It went on till I reached the striking zone and realising that I was losing my balance, tapped the ball over Usman's stick towards Prabhjot," Dhanraj related.

He is still quizzed about this move by the Pakistanis. "In hockey you can't plan such things. I tell them it just happened," Dhanraj said.

From this high, India went on to lose the placings match against Pakistan, laying bare the shortcomings of the team. "Pakistan did to us in the placings game what we did to them in the league. It was a collective failure on our part; we paid the price for being individualistic." India finished fourth, but Dhanraj was voted the `Best Player' and was mobbed by fans.

The Cologne award is bitter-sweet memory for him. "After losing the placings match, we stayed back to watch the final. The team's mood was low and I was told half an hour before the awards ceremony to get ready. I was amazed that they chose me for the individual honour when India had not finished among the top four."

"The FIH officials, including the president, had watched our league match against Pakistan. I think the `Best Player' award was in recognition of my creative ability in that match. I worked hard to set up goals for others," Dhanraj narrated.

Amsterdam 2003 brought India, fielding almost the same core group, fresh challenges. Gagan, Prabhjot and Thakur were heavily marked, yet the team kept attacking in waves. Hosts Netherlands almost got drowned 1-3 in the opener, but came back to win 4-3. Pakistan felt the heat going down 4-7 in the league phase after leading at one stage. "We were criticised for the lack of killer instinct after allowing the Dutch to come back from 1-3 down. But after beating Pakistan 7-4, people praised our aggression," recollected Dhanraj.

However, Pakistan won the placings match this time too, leaving India stranded at fourth spot.

Dhanraj was all praise for Gagan's confidence in the goalmouth and Jugraj Singh's courage in penalty corners rush-out. "In the league game against Pakistan, Gagan dribbled along the goalline and then went on to beat the goalkeeper. Usually in such situations, forwards hit the ball back from the goalline, but Gagan was so confident he went through on his own."

"As for Jugraj, the manner in which he marked Sohail Abbas and took the ball on his body without flinching, I thought India's penalty corner defence was in the right hands," Dhanraj said.

Dhanraj hopes that the current Indian team, comprising some really gifted players, would perform to its potential in the Champions Trophy 2005.