The hockey scene in India

THERE is everything to commend and nothing to detract from the merits of the victory that the Indian women achieved in the Asia Cup hockey championship in New Delhi last fortnight.

THERE is everything to commend and nothing to detract from the merits of the victory that the Indian women achieved in the Asia Cup hockey championship in New Delhi last fortnight. A debate on the strength, or the lack of it, of the defending champion, South Korea, or even the power-house, China, is irrelevant at this juncture while analysing the home team's display in its first ever trophy triumph in this competition.

The fact that both the Indian men and women are the Asian leaders now and automatic qualifiers for the 2006 World Championships underscores the marked improvement made in recent years. While the men had a rewarding phase last year, winning four of the five events they took part in, the women too signalled their striking form by taking the Commonwealth Gold two years ago and reconfirmed their superiority in the recent Afro-Asian Games at Hyderabad where the men also captured the Gold.

It is a pity indeed that India is out of the women's qualifier at Auckland next month — India is the first reserve — thanks to a quixotic handling of the controversy that arose while spotting the qualifiers for the World Cup in Paris two years ago. Compelled to play the US in a neutral venue in England for the seventh spot after the latter's refusal to play in New Delhi citing security concerns — again on account of some bungling by the FIH — India missed the berth for the Perth World Cup.

Over the years, the Indian women players have shown distinct development in technique, tactics and, even in temperament, to match their stronger and more systematised opponents such as Australia, Holland, Germany, and Argentina and the powerful Asian outfits from Japan, South Korea and China. But the administration ruffled quite a few feathers in shifting and shuffling coaches for one reason or the other; but the re-induction of M. K. Kaushik as the chief coach prior to the Afro-Asian Games seems to have worked wonders for the team. The players too have shrugged off their complacency that followed the triumph at the Manchester Commonwealth Games. India fared miserably in the Busan Asian Games taking the last place in the four-team league.

The consistency of craft displayed by the players under Surajlata Devi has won the team deserving accolades, which included a tribute from the country's President, Abdul Kalam. The electrifying performance of goal-keeper, Helen Mary, in the final despite an injured finger rightly received spontaneous approbation. A discordant note, however, was the treatment meted out to the host team when it came to accommodating it in the same star hotel along with the rest of the participants. Also embarrassing was the fact that the IWHF failed to pay enough attention to ensure the cup was brought by the holder, South Africa. Worse still was passing the buck to the Tournament Director, who has nothing to do with the protocol of opening and closing ceremonies. The administration should ensure that in no way are the players considered as second class citizens in their own land whatever be the financial stress. A silver lining, however, was the token cash award for the players.

The IWHF should now work on a programme that ensures greater opportunities for the players to keep up the tempo. This is a very important area since there has always been a tendency to lose momemtum as happened after India won the Gold at the Asian Games in New Delhi in 1982 where this discipline came on the schedule.

Predictably, the focus has now shifted to the men getting ready for the pre-Olympic event at Madrid. Even though the top seven will make it to the Olympics at Athens in August, the qualifier is bound to be a litmus test for India. The expectation is that the team will be strong enough to confront the opposition, which includes teams like Pakistan and New Zealand in the pool matches. Regrettably, India started the year with an indifferent performance in the Azlan Shah tournament, resting the top stars.

The recent series against the Olympic Champion, Holland, once again epitomised the shortcomings in finish and in conversion of penalty corners. The Indians dominated for long periods, notwithstanding the absence of the injured Dhanraj Pillay and Deepak Thakur, but eventually lost the series 0-2. The chief coach, Rajinder Singh, assured that the deficiencies perceived would be attended to and remedied in the preparatory camp.

It goes without saying that unless the attack is razor-sharp and seizes the chances, whenever created by the well knit midfield, whose efficiency was pronounced during the series in Hyderabad, the sailing is unlikely to be smooth at Madrid. India's record in the qualifiers — minus the comeptition at Barcelona in 1991— has not been striking, and in the last edition at Edinburgh prior to the World Cup at Kuala Lumpur, the team struggled against outfits such as Wales.

Instead of merely aiming to be a part of the seven for the Athens Games, India must go all out and win the top spot at Madrid. Only that will substantiate the popular observation that Indian hockey is back on the road to regaining its lost stature.