Veterans speak out

THE search for glory continues. A fourth place at the Champions Trophy may, or may not, reflect the true state of Indian hockey, but it has triggered off a debate among former players.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

"Let's learn to accept our shortcomings and the rest would fall in place. There's been a lot of negative talk but things are not so bad. It's certainly not the end of the road." — Zafar Iqbal. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

THE search for glory continues. A fourth place at the Champions Trophy may, or may not, reflect the true state of Indian hockey, but it has triggered off a debate among former players. The fourth place may have disappointed coach Rajinder Singh and many others who were optimistic about Indian hockey, but the tournament put things in perspective.

The Sportstar asked three outstanding players of yesteryear — Zafar Iqbal, Ashok Kumar and Merwyn Fernandes — to assess the strengths and weaknesses of Indian hockey at the end of the recent Champions Trophy. Is the current team capable of regaining the faith of its supporters?

"Very much," asserts Zafar Iqbal, the unassuming former India captain. Known for his sizzling runs down the left flank, Zafar did not mince words at all. "Let's learn to accept our shortcomings and the rest would fall in place. There's been a lot of negative talk but things are not so bad. It's certainly not the end of the road."

In Zafar's view, the team lacked cohesion. "We saw plenty of individual brilliance. The collective effort was missing. I'm sorry to say that some of our players have still not learnt to release the ball at the right time. We also need to give more thought to our positional play. The team didn't have wingers and that was not the best way to go about the job. Our midfield was awful and the defence brittle."

Ashok Kumar, who scored the goal which brought India the title in the 1975 World Cup, pointed out "There was needless hype surrounding the team. Too much was made of their wins in small tournaments before the Champions Trophy. If you ask me, such tournament-wins don't mean much. We expose our cards in such small tournaments and suffer when we go for the big events. What happened after the win in the Junior World Cup? The best junior, Tushar Khandekar, doesn't find a place in the senior side. Our bench strength is not utilised properly. It's in such matters that we need proper planning."

The former India captain asked, "Where's the talent? We don't have the kind of talent to conquer the world. Our transition period is still not over. All this talk of agility and sharpness looks misplaced because the fitness of the team was for all to see. I won't blame the players. They tried their best. If their best is not good enough then why slam them?"

Reflecting on the Champions Trophy, Merwyn, an incisive forward with a flair to produce sensational moves, said, "It was just one of those things that the team didn't click. I'm not feeling bad about it. We do have a few problems here and there but the team played well overall."

"Where's the talent? We don't have the kind of talent to conquer the world. Our transition period is still not over. All this talk of agility and sharpness looks misplaced because the fitness of the team was for all to see. I won't blame the players. They tried their best. If their best is not good enough then why slam them?" — Ashok Kumar. — Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

What was the main factor for India not achieving its goal? Zafar was candid, "In the last 30 years or so, I don't think we've managed to understand how to peak for a tournament. It's a very vital and very technical point. None of us have found the method to monitor the form of the players and we always tend to peak before the crucial match. We just don't know how to peak. I was clueless as a player and clueless even now. The Europeans seem to have mastered this art of peaking at the right time."

As far as Zafar was concerned, the entire team was out of form because each player made crucial mistakes at various stages. "What can you do if players run out of form? We've to face it. I think the administration needs to look into this aspect of preparing the team and keeping the players fresh too. Sometimes the dose before a tournament happens to be too much. I don't think there's need for heavy training before a tournament. Our players were in training camps for too long. We must have short camps and I've been saying this for a long time. The team was exhausted by the time it reached Holland. Look at Dilip Tirkey. He looked tired. In turn it affected the midfield."

Ashok agreed. "I don't think the team had trained properly. I know some of the players were not serious during training sessions. We just didn't play our traditional game. We were lacking in all the departments, especially the midfield which I thought was non-existent for long spells."

"Maybe we could've done better with better use of the bench strength," said Merwyn. "Even the best of the players can't last 70 minutes and we should've given a thought to this aspect carefully. It seemed some of the players were not willing to come out when the coach wanted them to. I don't want to be too critical of the players. They gave their best. I can't figure out why we fumble time and again. I have gone through this as a player. In 1984 and 1988 we failed to peak. We went through the drills but couldn't deliver. If you ask me for one factor at this tournament I would say we suffered from some tight marking. And then some of the umpiring decisions pushed us back. I don't want to find excuses but these crucial decisions always go against India. It happened in 1984 and we could never recover," Merwyn added.

Zafar, who was a member of the 1980 Moscow Olympics gold-winning team, pleaded for more support to hockey. "Please don't run down the game and please don't compare it with cricket. Hockey players don't enjoy the same privilege. In any case, why draw comparisons? It won't help us improve the state of hockey in the country. This is a good team, the best we could have picked, and we have to back the players."

"It was just one of those things that the team didn't click. I'm not feeling bad about it. We do have a few problems here and there but the team played well overall." — Merwyn Fernandes. — Pic. VINO JOHN-

Ashok, known for his frank views, expected changes in the team. "I would say Indian hockey needs drastic measures. Changes will have to be made because our team formation is not ideal. I would go to the extent of saying that there's nothing wrong if we bring in a foreign coach if it helps the players. His words will probably have more effect. There's indiscipline in the team and it is time we came down heavily on it. Some of the players have too big an ego for a simple coach to tackle. The team needs a coach who has a strong voice." Ashok, however, was willing to accept the job, if offered. "What greater honour?" he remarked.

Zafar also appealed to sports lovers to view an India-Pakistan match in the right perspective. "We've to overcome this barrier. Winning against Pakistan was not the ultimate for us at the Champions Trophy. We won one and lost one but I don't think it helped us improve our image in the international arena. We may have beaten Pakistan in an exciting match but then look at the matches we lost to Holland, Australia and Argentina. We were outplayed by Australia and we had no business to lose to Argentina. I would've appreciated the team if it had performed well against the Europeans. Look at how we struggled to overcome Germany which was essentially a development team."

In Ashok's opinion, "The team knew it was not so good but it struck a compromise for its own benefit. They gave the impression they were among the best but see how they stood exposed. I suspect some of the players were too involved with money matters. Who doesn't want money, but first earn the honours to deserve such money. The bickering over graded payment is not a good sign at all. You can't think of money at the cost of the game."

The three, who served Indian hockey with distinction, were unanimous in terming this Indian team talented and expected the people and the sponsors to support the players.