The gulf widens

S. THYAGARAJAN

Super Power... The Australian team with the Champions Trophy after the final.-VINO JOHN

CONSIGNED to history on December 18, the 27th edition of the Champions Trophy in Chennai was eventful in every sense of the word. While the combatants certainly entered a new frontier of excellence with regard to dynamics and depth as well as the growing sophistication in style and system, the fare every day offered a new insight into the improving areas of adeptness and athleticism.

No combination portrayed the elements that constitute the essence of competitive hockey more eloquently than Australia. The eighth triumph after the last home success in Brisbane in 1999, confirmed in one stroke why it is a super power — befitting the tag as Olympic champion.

Blessed as the team of coaches headed by the soft-spoken Barry Dancer are with players of outstanding ability in every segment that forms the balance in a team, it was a pleasure watching the Aussies conceive a move and complete that with panache. The verve, velocity coupled with the variegated patterns simply bewildered the opposition. A sequence of four consecutive wins, each as authoritative as other assured the Aussies a final berth, the status as the favourite, which they proved to the hilt, hammering the Dutch 3-1 in a rain-interrupted final.

It would be invidious to pick who among the Aussie squad stood out. What norms the panel followed to name Bevan George as the `Player of the Tournament' are incomprehensible. For sheer, flair, fluency and fitness, there was none to match the enterprise and efficiency of Jaime Dwyer. Some of the goals he struck were classic indeed. Support for Jaime, the golden boy of Athens Olympics, sprouted always from Mike McCaan, Nathan Eglington and Andrew Smith in the frontline, Brent Livermore from the middle, and the ever dependable Matthew Wells in the defence. Both the goal-keepers, Stephen Lambert and Stephen Mowlan, were a cut above the rest.

The Netherlands lacked the freshness and flash of the Aussies. Roelant Oltmans leans heavily on drawing on the experience and integrating it with the intriguing and complex chart he prepares for the squad. The foundation of Oltmans' strategy springs from the skills of Jerome Delmee in the mid-field, and on the versatility of the 29-year old Teun di Nooijer, nominated as the `Player of the Year 2005'. Around this duo emerged the patterns of the Dutch formations, shaped by the inputs from the Brouwers (Ronald and Matthijs), Karel Klaver and Rob Reckers. Of course, there was that penalty corner striker, Taeke Takema. In the early part, Taeke's form was suspect, but as the tournament progressed he gained the touch to surge in during crucial phases, like the match winner he scored against India, which richly deserved a draw.

Goal bound... Grant Schubert takes a shot at the goal after beating Netherlands' Robert van der Horst in the final.-VINO JOHN

The Spaniards were a delight in their own way. The ease and elegance of Santi Friexa, who also doubled up as a penalty corner specialist to be the top scorer with seven, the incisive and ingenuous movements of Eduard Tabau, Pol Amat and David Algre bore a different stamp of finesse. Spain had a somewhat laboured start against India, lost badly to the Aussies (2-4), but recovered sufficiently enough to be in medal contention. Only the narrow 2-1 Dutch victory over India denied Spain a spot in the final, which looked bright after the team beat Germany in a tight contest (3-2).

Bernhard Peters, the German coach, was clear in his perception that the Champions Trophy was only an additional step towards shaping the young squad for the next World Cup. The Germans in Chennai were a combination of youth. Losing the seasoned Bjorn Emmerling before the start owing to an injury was a setback. The team, exceptionally strong in the fundamentals and forthright in approach, came up with an excellent show after the indifferent start against the Aussies. The strike force in the team was Christopher Zeller and Mathias Witthaus, not leaving out Jan Marco Montag who converted the penalty corners with a touch of assurance.

When studied against the background of the calibre of Europe and Australia, the decadence of the sub-continent, represented by Pakistan and India, is painful. Neither squad, save for brief spells, displayed anything that could disturb the rhythm of any of the top teams. Much was expected of Pakistan after the Rabobank Trophy win, but the Chennai performance makes one believe that the Amstelveen victory was a mere aberration, an accident. Last in the table at the end of the league phase, Pakistan was pathetic, both in attack and defence.

Individually, there were flashes from Mudassar Khan and Rehan Bhatt, mid-fielder Saqlain and defender Muhammad Imran. Collectively, the team was a failure, its win against India in the decider for the 5th and 6th placings notwithstanding.

Medal hunt... Spain's Pol Amat (left) and Germany's Niklas Meinert tussle in the match for the 3rd and 4th places.-VINO JOHN

Somewhat similar was India, good in parts, but on the whole slithering down to the last spot, provoking contempt all round. An inconsistent defence and mid-field and an incompetent attack, contributed to the outcome that pushed India out of the elite zone, rendering it ineligible for the next edition in Terrassa.

The only streak was the 3-2 win over Pakistan in the first engagement. True, India played close matches against Spain, Germany and the Netherlands, but the spirit and skill were totally insufficient to alter the outcome. The goal-keeping by Adrian D'Souza was atrocious in the early part of the tournament, especially against the Aussies. By the time, Bharat Chettri, got into the rhythm — he played a superb match against the Netherlands — the team's fate was sealed.

Too many defensive errors by Kanwalpreet Singh and Harpal Singh destroyed what little good work they did. The only player of promise in the defence was William Xalco.

In the mid-field Viren's injury was a worrying factor, but for consistency the prize should go to V.S.Vinay. Drag flicker Sandeep Singh has a long way to go to be the trump card.

Back markers... A tense moment in the match between India and Pakistan for the 5th & 6th places.-VINO JOHN

The failure of key players, Gagan Ajit Singh — who led in the absence of the indisposed Dilip Tirkey — and Prabhjot Singh, left the frontline as the weakest area. Save for the opportunism of Tushar Khandekar, the ineptitude of the forward line was appalling. It is time this link is shuffled and fresh blood infused.

Indian hockey suffers from the perennial malaise of talent not translating itself into favourable results.

It is a tragic situation in which the blame game is paramount and each blames the other not realising that everyone has contributed to this traumatic mess.

Admittedly, it was a challenge to put up an event on board professionally of like the Champions Trophy, but the inability to clinch a satisfactory telecast arrangement that compelled the fixtures and timing to be altered left a bitter taste.

The coaches were furious over the eleventh hour revision of schedule that left many among the top brass of the International Hockey Federation (FIH) red faced.

Suffice it to say, the Champions Trophy just scrambled its way to the end, leaving a trace of dissatisfaction all round, that was accentuated by the deplorable show by the national team.