There's still room for progress

The victorious Indian team, which clinched the Test series 4-1 against Belgium.-PICS: S. R. RAGHUNATHAN

The five-Test series against Belgium brought into focus the improvements made by the Indian team under the guidance of Carvalho, writes K. Keerthivasan.

The Indian hockey team, no doubt, has a huge mountain to climb. The peak which the chief national coach Joaquim Carvalho and his boys need to scale is in Santiago in the first week of March this year. If things go wrong in Chile, where India is scheduled to play in the Olympic qualification tournament, the team will find it doubly difficult to resurrect itself.

Carvalho, who took charge of the Indian squad last year, has consciously and quietly worked on the team, making the players realise the value and significance of donning the blue jersey. The players, in turn, have responded wonderfully and the results speak for themselves.

The Indian hockey lovers, long used to false dawns, will not expect miracles from the team. In a way, they are right. Carvalho, however, believes that India is on way to scripting a fresh chapter. If people keep talking in hushed tones about India’s bright chances of competing in the Olympics, then Carvalho deserves a fair measure of credit for this.

The five-Test series against Belgium, held in Chennai as part of India’s preparations for the Olympic qualifier, brought into focus the improvements made by the home team under the guidance of Carvalho. India won the series 4-1 without much hiccups.

Like India, Belgium too is on a learning curve. The only difference between the two teams is that Belgium has already qualified for the Beijing Olympics, while India will go through the qualifers in Chile.

Belgium’s coach, Adam Commens of Australia, is keen on synthesising the Aussie system and the European flair. But if the manner in which Belgium played in Chennai is any indication, the team hardly displayed either the Aussie grit or the European style.

India’s goalkeeper Baljit Singh, who hogged the limelight with an excellent showing in the Asia Cup, was all at sea in the opening match. To add to his woes, the deep defence of Dilip Tirkey and William Xalxo looked quite pedestrian. Leading 3-0 in the first half and 4-1 early in the second half, India fell back as Belgium managed to level the scores.

The spectators who converged in large numbers were certainly disappointed by India’s attitude. Behind the scenes, Carvalho worked hard. For the second match, he brought in Bharat Chetri as the goalkeeper besides making a few other changes.

Under the bar Chetri was like one who didn’t believe tomorrow existed. The 27-year-old played his heart out and was adjudged the Man of the Match. India posted a thumping 5-0 victory over Belgium.

India’s strength, undoubtedly, lay in the frontline. When in full flow, it’s like the waves lashing the shore. India’s frontline has harmony, skill, speed and verve.

Belgium was at the receiving end as striker Tushar Khandekar scored a hat-trick in India’s comfortable victory in the second Test.

Carvalho’s biggest gamble was in including the youngsters for the fourth Test. Fresh from their tour of Malaysia, where they played in an eight-nation invitation junior under-21 tournament in Kuala Lumpur, Diwakar Ram and Samir Baxla joined the Indian senior team with expectations riding high on them. The two quickly settled down in the competitive environment.

They relished and enjoyed the challenge. While Baxla was rock solid in defence, Diwakar, renowned for his drag flicks, gave the spectators a glimpse of his ability to strike the ball deceptively and hard during penalty corner conversions. Having sewed up the series 4-0, India rested many of its experienced players for the fifth and final Test and gave chance to the youngsters.

Well-deserved victory… Rajpal Singh (right) and Diwakar celebrate after helping India beat Belgium 2-1 in the fourth Test. Both scored a goal each.-

Belgium finally played the brand of hockey it had promised all along but seldom displayed. It adopted the sub-continential style and managed a consolation 3-2 victory. According to Carvalho the Test series was of great help in assessing the players.

“Winning the Test series against Belgium is one thing and the happiness of that victory is another. But I feel the players have to lift their game a few notches. There were a few mistakes and each of the players has been advised to take remedial measures so that such mistakes do not recur,” the Olympian said.

Carvalho said the Test series proved to be a good preparation for India which is aiming to win a berth for the Beijing Olympics.

“The body language of our players needs to be much sharper,” Carvalo said. “They know that they cannot afford to make any mistakes in the Olympic Qualifiers in Chile. They cannot afford to be complacent and drop their shoulders.”

The coach was happy for Diwakar and Samir who grabbed the chances that came their way. “For the first time we have given chances to our young junior stars like Diwakar Ram and Samir Baxla (in the playing XI) and Bikash Toppo. They have quickly adjusted to playing with the seniors and this must have given them confidence,” said Carvalho.

Considering the number of talents at his disposal, Carvalho admitted that picking the final team for Chile will be definitely difficult as each one of them has, in his own way, displayed his strengths. “But performance alone will be the criterion for players to get into the team,” he concluded.

THE RESULTS First Test

India 4 (Tushar Khandekar, Shivender Singh, Raghunath 2) drew with Belgium 4 (Jerome Dekeyser 2, Briels Thomas, Dohmen John John).

Second Test

India 5 (Birendra Lakra 1, Tushar Khandekar 3, Rajpal Singh 1) bt Belgium 0.

Third Test

India 3 (Raghunath 1, Dilip Tirkey 1, Rajpal Singh 1) bt Belgium 2 (Charles Vandeweghe 1, Jerome Dekeyser 1).

Fourth Test

India 2 (Rajpal Singh, Diwakar Ram) bt Belgium 1 (Truyens Jerome).

Fifth Test

Belgium 3 (Briels Thomas, Jerome Dekeyser, Charlier Cedric) bt India 2 (Birendra Lakra, Ajitesh Rai).