Tough task ahead

OF what hue will the medal for India be in hockey can generate a passionate debate.

S. THYAGARAJAN

It will be the fourth Olympics for veteran Dhanraj Pillay (middle), a record that he will share with the legendary Leslie Claudius and Udham Singh. — Pic. VINO JOHN-

OF what hue will the medal for India be in hockey can generate a passionate debate. Identifying one may be reckoned as being overoptimistic given the convulsions that preceded the selection of the team. Admittedly, the pointers are not encouraging, compared to what they were in the same period in 2003.

It will be churlish to advocate anything wrong with preparation. On the contrary, there are reasons to suggest that the players may be over-trained. For over two months, a pack of 24 was trained in different locales; the major one being at Temp in Arizona under the expert guidance of two German coaches, Oliver Kutz and Gerhard Rach, apart from the brief stint in Delhi, Dusseldorf and Leverkusen before moving to Athens.

Change of guard

What, however, rendered the whole exercise traumatic was the change of guard; or even the manner in which it was effected in Dusseldorf before the final 16 were named. The removal of the chief coach, Rajinder Singh, and the appointment of Gerhard Rach in his place raised a widespread, spontaneous outrage. Coming as this change did in the wake of the sacking of the other two coaches, Harendera Singh and M. R. Regi (goalkeeper) earlier and the nomination of former Olympian Jagbir Singh, as a consequence to the deplorable show in the four-nation tournament at Amstelveen, there was a feeling that the changes would have a demoralising effect on the squad less than a month before the Olympics.

The impact of these changes is not lost even as one ventures to figure out the chances. Only six — Devesh Chauhan, Dilip Tirkey, Dhanraj Pillay, Baljit Dhillon, Deepak Thakur and Gagan Ajit Singh — out of the 16 were in Sydney. Nine are newcomers to the summit. Dhanraj, the oldest player in contemporary hockey with over 300 internationals, and Baljit Singh Dhillon, have more than one Olympic cap. Dhanraj Pillay, whose choice has been a major talking point for months, will be participating in his fourth Olympiad, a record that he will share with the legendary Leslie Claudius and Udham Singh.

Why Dhanraj has not been given the honour to lead the team is not hard to guess given the clutch of controversies he created for himself. To Dilip Tirkey goes the status of leading the national team in the Olympics. Interestingly, the first Indian team in the Olympics in 1928 was led by an adivasi, Jaipal Singh, in 1928. Dilip Tirkey becomes the second adivasi captain.

A superficial evaluation portrays the team as balanced; but a critical assessment shows chinks. Goal-keeper Devesh Chauhan is on to his second Olympics. There is a note of fear about his consistency. The junior star and debutant, Adrian D'Souza, is viewed as more intrepid and reflexive. How much benefit has accrued to the two from the new Dutch goalkeeping coach, Frank Leistra, is yet to be determined.

Defence can be vulnerable

Skipper Dilip Tirkey and strikers Gagan Ajit Singh and Prabhjot Singh have to perform to their potential. — Pic. VINO JOHN-

The deep defence of Dilip Tirkey, Harpal Singh and William Xalco can be vulnerable. Minus Dilip, the two youngsters, indisputably talented, are rookies who should elevate themselves to a very high level to be effective. Dumping the seasoned Kanwalpreet Singh may prove to be a mistake.

Vikram Pillay, Viren Resquinha, Ignace Tirkey and Arjun Halappa, along with the penalty striker, Sandeep Singh, give the mid-field a modicum of solidity. The success rate of Sandeep Singh in drag flicks may tilt the scales.

The veterans Dhanraj and Dhillon will be the base of the frontline. Both have tremendous experience and expertise to exert pressure on any defence. But it is on the strikers, Deepak Thakur, Gagan Ajit Singh and Prabhjot Singh that the team has to lean on heavily. How far the young Adam Sinclair will prove himself is again left to conjecture.

On the whole, the key lies in how well the team soaks itself into the Olympic atmosphere and meets the hopes and aspirations of the nation, thirsting to see a medal since 1980. The outcome of the tough opening match against the defending champion, the Netherlands, which won the Madrid Olympics qualifier where India finished fourth, will definitely set the tone and tenor of progress. The record against the Dutch is anything but inspiring. India has not won a single match against Holland after Sydney.

India will be playing South Africa for the first time in the Olympics. It has won only three of the nine played against the Aussies. Against New Zealand and Argentina, India has a much better record in the Olympics but nothing can be left to chance. India won 2-0 against New Zealand at Madrid. The last match against Argentina was in the Champions Trophy at Amstelveen where India lost 2-4.

What India should hope for to secure a semi-final berth is to ensure full points against South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina, sharing them either with Holland or Australia or with both. Such calculations no doubt have only an academic value, but at this level only living up to such permutations and combinations produce results.