Superfast Railways brooks no stopping

KIRTI PATIL

RAILWAYS has made winning a habit. And, it was this habit which Railways exhibited with so much authority at the 51st Women's National hockey championship in Jalandhar.

The triumphant Railways team.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Railways has dominated women's hockey for over two decades. Its unchallenged clout is reflected in its control over the Indian team also. The Railways' present squad is a mirror image of the India team. What more could one ask for?

The other teams could not even envy the Railways' invincibility, for, the best players in the state teams themselves are trying to get into the Railways team. Most were busy displaying their skills for a possible admission into the main team. That would also mean a ticket to the India team.

Railways took its 18th straight title in 22 years. Ever since Railways became eligible to participate, in 1980, it has not allowed any team to take even a piece from its pie. Unfortunately, for various reasons, the championship was not held in 1989, 1996, 1998 and 2001.

Railways' ruthless 6-0 drubbing of Punjab in the final, yet again proved that its combination was impregnable. Railways was strong no doubt, but the scoreline really diluted the status of the title match.

It was just that Railways was too good for the spirited Punjab. And, high spirits do not help always.

Having beaten Haryana in the semifinals, Punjab, at heart, had gone sky-high. And Railways was too fast on its track for Punjab to catch up.

The championship will be remembered for the Railways strikers, Jyoti Sunita Kullu and Surinder Kaur, and the daring Haryana forward Balwinder Kaur. While Jyoti ended up as the top-scorer with nine goals, followed by Balwinder, the sprightly forward Surinder was unlucky to get only three goals.

Nicknamed the goal-machine, Surinder was too good for a domestic competition such as this. In the company of Jyoti and Pritam Rani Siwach, Surinder gave an exhibition of how to fox the opponents. Changing flanks with ease, Surinder played the perfect spoiler thereby stifling the opposition.

Being such a star player for Railways, as well as for India, Surinder was sparingly used. If she opened the attack then she was rested in the second half. The team not wanting to risk an injury to such a key player was understandable. In fact, the luxury of having the country's six best strikers gave Railways enough options to juggle around.

When Surinder rested, Mamta Kharab, Sanghai Ibemhal Chanu or Pakpi Devi shouldered the responsibility. Not to forget, Jyoti was in ominous form. And Pritam's vintage magic still works. If Jyoti was the most consistent player, Pritam was an individual artist.

When most of the players found it hard to get into a competitive mode after the month-long conditioning camp in Patiala, it was Pritam who steered the Railways in the opener. Pritam struck once in each half in Railways' modest 3-0 win against Chandigarh. Three more goals came off her stick, but by then Jyoti had taken over the job of scoring.

In the next four matches, Jyoti scored consistently. She had a brace each against Jharkhand and Karnataka, in the league matches. Jyoti came up with a steady performance in the semifinal also, scoring two goals in Railways' 4-0 win against Mumbai. The final also belonged to her as she found the goal thrice and became the top scorer of the tournament.

The kind of form Railways displayed, augurs well for India as most of the Railway players play for the national side. The women's team has a busy international schedule, starting with a three-match Test series - a unique qualifier tournament for the World Cup scheduled in Perth this December.

The Indian Women's Hockey Federation (IWHF) had chalked out a thoughtful plan. The conditioning camp was followed by the Nationals, to give competitive practice for the Indian team. Its next stop was Belgium, where the Brussels-based FIH had organised the series against the US, in April.

For the moment, though, Belgium is off the calendar, as also April. It is understood that now the series would be played in June, in Manchester. The Indian team is then expected to stay put in England and prepare for the July-August Commonwealth Games.

The rescheduling of the series against the US has made futile, the efforts which went into the organisation of the Nationals in such a hurried manner. Usually the championship is held in January-February, but to give the Indian team competitive practice the championship was scheduled for March.

Now, March is a month of college examinations. Barring the Railways, most other state teams comprised college girls. The players from South and East regions arrived in Jalandhar just on the eve of the championship, after writing their final examination papers.

For teams such as Delhi, Chandigarh and Haryana, the only advantage was that the travelling time was less. In effect, Haryana, being the runner-up of the previous edition, was accommodated the most.

Delhi arrived on the day it was to play its first match, the third day of the Nationals. Had it reached the semifinals, many players would have had to make a choice between hockey and studies. A few more subject papers remained to be written.

The UP Women's Hockey Association, on the other hand, decided to skip the Nationals and allow the girls to concentrate on their examinations.

And, to make matters worse, UP's Bula Ganguly, who was originally assigned the job of Tournament Director, expressed her unavailability. In her place, the IWHF appointed Delhi's Ms. Sudarshan Pathak, who unfortunately could not assert her authority when it mattered.

The most peculiar example was that of Punjab player Roohi Dhillon. Roohi had become a star overnight when she played the match of her life and scored five goals in a row. All her efforts came through field attacks as Punjab beat Delhi 6-0, in its last league match and booked a place in the semifinals.

Seeing Punjab on the upswing, Haryana feared the worst. Haryana, in fact, was the only team which had the strength and the will to take on the mighty Railways. But, the circumstances, overconfidence and arrogance caused Haryana's downfall.

First, the Haryana team management objected to Roohi playing for Punjab as the player was domiciled in Chandigarh. Punjab tried to explain that even Chandigarh - against whom Roohi had figured in the North Zone qualifying tournament for the Nationals - had not objected to her playing for Punjab.

But on the given day, Punjab was unable to produce a 'No Objection Certificate' issued by Chandigarh. Consequently, Roohi had to watch the Punjab-Haryana match from the bench.

What transpired on the field between Punjab and Haryana was a grudge affair. Despite taking an early fifth-minute lead, Haryana found no more openings. Punjab, on the other hand, pressed for the initiatives and finally struck gold.

It equalised through Renu Bala and took the match into extra-time. No team took the risk in the first half of the extra-time, but on changing ends Haryana wasted two crucial penalty corners while Punjab got one and Renu slotted in the golden goal.

On the bench, Roohi cried with mixed emotions. She was still not sure whether she would be allowed to take the field, in the final against Railways.

Punjab, meanwhile, secured a copy of the NOC, which the team, inadvertently, had not carried with its kit. Railways had no problems about Roohi playing for Punjab, but Ms. Pathak was undecided with only an hour remaining for the start of the final.

The team's starting list was delayed beyond comprehension. Even as the Tournament Director informed the media that Roohi would not be allowed to play, Punjab entered her in the line-up.

It was a different matter that Roohi could not reproduce her form against Delhi. The Railways defenders, Suman Bala and Amandeep Kaur, have been in the business for long. The seasoned Sita Gussain, who takes care of the midfield and the defence, also foiled the moves that Roohi made.

In a play-off for the third place, Haryana was given a scare by Mumbai. Haryana's pride was dented when Mumbai took a 2-0 lead by halftime. Haryana, the National Games champion, had aimed at derailing the Railways for a unique double. But now it was fighting for the third place, which also seemed to be slipping away.

Penalty corner expert Sandeep Kaur saved Haryana the blushes and then striker Jasjeet Kaur scored the winner.

For the record, the IWHF had assured the organisers live coverage of the semifinals and the final. Accordingly, sponsors were approached for in-field advertising and the money was also collected. But on the day of the semifinals, it dawned on the organisers that only the final would be telecast live. The IWHF was, unabashedly, oblivious of how the sponsors were pacified.

Then there was the story about the missing trophy. The prestigious Lady Ratan Tata Trophy, which was in Railways' custody, had been returned to the IWHF once the dates of the Nationals were announced.

The trophy was nowhere to be seen and the Tournament Director was unaware of the whereabouts of the silverware.

The results:

Final: Railways 6 (Jyoti Sunita Kullu 3, Surinder Kaur, Manjinder Kaur, Suraj Lata Devi) beat Punjab 0.

Play-off for third place: Haryana 3 (Sandeep Kaur 2, Jasjeet Kaur) beat Mumbai 2 (Poonam Surin, Geeta B.M.).

Semifinals: Railways 4 (Jyoti Sunita Kullu 2, Mamta Kharab, Surinder Kaur) beat Mumbai 0; Punjab 2 (Renu Bala 2) beat Haryana 1 (Balwinder Kaur).

League points tally (read as matches played, won, lost, drawn, goals for, goals against, points):

Pool 'A': Railways 3-3-0-0-17-0-9; Jharkhand 3-1-1-1-10-6-4; Chandigarh 3-1-1-1-6-4-4; Karnataka 3-0-3-0-2-25-0.

Pool 'B': Punjab 2-2-0-0-16-0-6; Delhi 2-1-1-0-11-6-3; Manipur 2-0-2-0-0-21-0.

Pool 'C': Mumbai 2-1-0-1-8-2-4; Orissa 2-1-0-1-3-2-4; Tamil Nadu 2-0-2-0-0-7-0.

Pool 'D': Haryana 2-2-0-0-25-0-6; Air-India 2-1-1-0-6-8-3; Madhya Pradesh 2-0-2-0-0-23-0.

National women's hockey factfile

ONE hundred and twenty two goals were scored in 19 matches at an average of 6.42 goals per match. Exactly fifty players scored these goals. There was one goalless encounter between Chandigarh and Jharkhand.

Jyoti Sunita Kullu, the top-scorer in the championship.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Most goals in a match:

17 (Haryana 17 - Madhya Pradesh 0) 11 (Jharkhand 10 - Karnataka 1) 11 (Delhi 11 - Manipur 0) 10 (Punjab 10 - Manipur 0)

Most goals by a player in a match:

6. Balwinder Kaur (Haryana) v Madhya Pradesh 5. Mohan Davinder Kaur (Punjab) v Manipur 5. Roohi Dhillon (Punjab) v Delhi 4. Jasmani Tiru (Jharkhand) v Karnakata 4. Kiran Bala (Haryana) v Madhya Pradesh 4. Kamala Mann (Haryana) v Madhya Pradesh

Goal-scorers: Nine: Jyoti Sunita Kullu (Railways). Eight: Balwinder Kaur (Haryana).

Six: Mohan Davinder Kaur (Punjab) and Kamala Mann (Haryana).

Five: Pritam Rani Siwach (Railways), Sandeep Kaur (Haryana and Roohi Dhillon (Punjab).

Four: Surinder Kaur (Railways), Jasmani Tiru (Jharkhand and Kiran Bala (Haryana).

Three: Suman Bala (Railways), Jasijeet Kaur (Haryana), Renu Bala (Punjab), Sangeeta Kadiyan (Delhi), Asrita Toppo (Chandigarh), Neha Singh (Delhi) Poona Surin (Mumbai).

Two: Mamta Kharab (Railways), Elina Christy (Mumbai), Pushpa Pradhan (Jharkhand) Geeta B.M. (Mumbai), Parmila Ekka (Jharkhand), Simarjeet Kaur (Haryana), Rajwinder Kaur (Punjab), Mukta Xalco (Punjab), Inakhumbi Chanu (Air-India), Priya Singh (Air-India), Pratima Tirkey (Orissa) and Sonika (Delhi).

One: Sanghai Ibemhal Chanu (Railways), Pakpi Devi (Railways), Manjider Kaur (Railways), Suraj Lata Devi (Railways), Adeline Kerketta (Jharkhand), Kanti Baa (Mumbai), Paulina Surin (Mumbai), Annarita Kerketta (Jharkhand), Laxmi Shree (Mumbai), Ramneek Kaur (Haryana), V. Kumari (Karnataka), P. S. Jemima (Karnakata), Eram Rizvi (Chandigarh), Anu Sonkar (Chandigarh), Sodhana Singh (Chandigarh), Suman Thakur (Air-India), Tilotma Devi (Air-India), Sushila Sharma (Delhi), Babita Khatri (Delhi), Mukta Prabha Barla (Orissa) and Sangita (Delhi).

Compiled by Pervez Qaiser