The champion is raring to go

NANDAKUMAR MARAR

DHANRAJ PILLAY can make things happen on a hockey turf. In the last two months, ever since his appointment as a reluctant captain of the Indian men's team for a Four-Nation tournament in Australia, he has managed to create a ripple effect even in company boardrooms, first with a startling public appeal for corporate involvement in hockey sponsorship, followed by a business deal with a marketing agency for endorsements. Sahara India came to the Indian Hockey Federation's rescue by becoming the game's latest benefactor, starting with the 2003 Champions Trophy in Amsterdam.

The Indian captain, weighed down by reputation and responsibility, makes no tall claims but is relishing the prospect of taking on the world's best and guiding a pack of talented youngsters hungry for international success. His ally is chief coach Rajinder Singh, a former Olympian whose belief in an attacking approach has struck a chord with Dhanraj, who is preparing for his fourth Champions Trophy, the earlier three being '95 Berlin, '96 Chennai, 2002 Cologne. "Rajinder believes in his team and allows us to attack even when we are down. It shows his confidence in our ability to bounce back,'' said the 35-year-old captain, in a telephonic interview to The Sportstar from Lucknow, where the national probables were training in Sahara Village.

Dhanraj will be a marked man at Amsterdam, due to his reputation for destroying defences with a single swerve. The emergence of top-class strikers in Gagan Ajit Singh and Prabhjot Singh has given him the luxury of opting for playmaking duties, creating openings. He did enough to earn the `Best Player' award last year at the Cologne Champions Trophy, the first Indian to get this distinction. This time as captain, he will have to again show the way. "The Indian team is a fit, young side. We are prepared for the challenge,'' says Dhanraj, hinting at surprises in store for Indian hockey enthusiasts.

Excerpts from the interview:

Question: You have a reputation to uphold this time at Amsterdam, after being honoured with the Champions Trophy `Best Player' award at Cologne last year. There is also responsibility on your shoulders as India captain in 2003. Any personal and team goals in mind?

Answer: I am fit and confident of doing justice to my role as a schemer. Ever since the Cologne Champions Trophy where I had a good tournament, my ability to hit a goalworthy pass is being talked about. Earlier, I was known for scoring goals. I will be happy to continue playing an attacking, creative role and will be delighted if any of my other India teammates get chosen for the `Best Player' award this time, because it will mean back-to-back honours for Indian hockey.

The side I am leading is fit, a majority of players being talented youngsters wanting to prove themselves against the world's best. The handful of seniors are playing effective roles. Dilip Tirkey is the team's backbone in the defence and Baljit Dhillon is doing a fine job as playmaker, hitting passes leading to goals or penalty corners. As long as we don't get overconfident and maintain a cool head, this bunch will better India's best Champions Trophy showing (3rd place in 1982).

Do the two tournament victories (Four-Nation in Australia and Panasonic Cup in Germany) mean anything when it comes to tackling real competition which Champions Trophy represents?

We are prepared for the Champions Trophy challenge. The two wins in Australia and Germany have come against teams like Australia, Argentina, Germany who played hard and fielded players who will be seen in Amsterdam. This Indian team has shown that it can score goals, do well in penalty corners, support each other on and off the turf. The four-five months we have been together, on tours and during preparations, have resulted in the boys making an attempt to understand each other.

Coach Rajinder Singh's support has been an important factor. He has played hockey at the highest level and understands players' thinking. He believed in our abilities in the two tournaments which we won playing attacking hockey. He did not put pressure on us to curb our natural aggressive instincts even when the team was trailing, so confident was he that India would win. His presence will help us continue in the same path.

"The Indian team was fortunate to get an opportunity to meet President A. P. J. Kalam, one of the most memorable meetings in my career so far," says Dhanraj Pillay. — Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

Six of the world's top teams playing each other makes the Champions Trophy a high-quality event, with a direct entry into the 2004 Athens Olympics for the winner. Your observations regarding the competition vis-a-vis India and an Olympic berth?

The Champions Trophy can be won by any of the six sides in Amsterdam. Differences in playing standards are so narrow in world hockey that performance on that day counts, nothing else matters. Every game is important. We know what to expect and look forward to playing to potential from day one.

Amstelveen, in Amsterdam, has been a happy hunting ground for Indian hockey, our best showing happening in 1982. What are your experiences of Dutch hockey?

Amstelveen is one of my favourite hockey venues, my career took off there in 1990 after scoring two goals against Pakistan in a Four-Nation event. It was my first game as part of the India first XI and we won 4-2. Since then I have been a regular in the national side. The Dutch have learnt hockey skills, their top players like Teun de Nooijer and Stephan Veen can play as well as any Asian. The crowds respect skills, so matches featuring India have always been played to packed stands. The Dutch crowds will not be disappointed this time, too.

Sahara India have staked their credibility and money by agreeing to sponsor Indian hockey, after the previous sponsor had withdrawn in the same year when the national side was on tour. The Champions Trophy event is the first international engagement under the new arrangement. Has the entry of a new, high-profile sponsor made a difference to the players? What will the Indian team give the sponsor in return?

Sahara have made a difference to the players by attracting mileage for hockey due to their presence. Benefits have come in the form of facilities at camps. For example, at Lucknow, the national probables training for the Champions Trophy were treated like VIPs. I have always maintained that India players need good food and good staying conditions. Now that this is happening due to Sahara and work by the Indian Hockey Federation, for the first time in my playing career, I hope the players/administrators create more mileage for the sponsor in whichever way possible.

The media is also looking at hockey in a new perspective, with extensive coverage in print and Ten Sports channel announcing live coverage of 2003 Champions Trophy in response to public demand. Why this sudden surge in interest? From a player's perspective, how can the Indian team make use of this new awareness to popularise the sport?

Television's interest in Indian hockey happened only after India won two tournaments in Australia and Germany respectively, when fans deprived of live action wrote letters to newspapers. Ever since the team arrived from Australia and Germany, the newspapers have been reporting hockey on a daily basis. The Indian team was fortunate to get an opportunity to meet President A.P.J. Kalam, one of the most memorable meetings in my career so far. As a result of all this, at least three on India's Champions Trophy squad have signed up for endorsement deals, with the IHF's permission, and more will benefit in due course.

It is one way of promoting hockey, because once youngsters see current hockey internationals playing for India in sponsors' colours, appearing in advertisements etc, the game will attract more participation. Winning is most important, starting with the Champions Trophy, so that Indian hockey gets talked about for the right reasons.