When everything fell into place

Simply superb... the Indians celebrate after nailing South Korea 7-2 in the final.-R. RAGU

Ever since Joaquim Carvalho took over the reins as the chief coach, there has been a refreshing change in the Indian team. And this reflected in the team’s success at the Asia Cup in Chennai. Over to S. Thyagarajan.

Seldom have we — a small bunch of hockey writers — ever searched for adjectives to describe an Indian victory. Stunned and awestruck by the sheer magnitude and magnificence of India’s Asia Cup triumph, picking the right epithet to portray the mood and the intensity of emotions sweeping the country was a difficult endeavour. Yet, as the enormity of the success sank in, everyone hit on the right superlatives to convey to hockey aficionados, nay the sports f raternity here and abroad, the elation of a trophy triumph.

What India accomplished on that humid Sunday night (September 9, 2007) at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium in Chennai is a golden moment in our hockey history. It signalled the resurgence of the ethos, brilliantly portrayed by the likes of Dhyanchand and Balbir Singh (Sr.) in engendering the hope that the doomsday, so often predicted by the Cassandras, is far, far away — probably, may never be sighted at all.

For those emotionally involved with Indian hockey, this was the time savour, relish; a moment to reaffirm that the elements of style, system and, above all, the aesthetics of the sport, were not lost upon us. How far will this successful defence of the title in the biggest continental championship take us is a question best left to the perspective and proclivity of the enthusiasts.

Incredible as the sequence of India’s victories in the tournament was — seven-in-a-row to be exact — its incandescence left one in a daze.

India’s performance shattered quite a few assumptions. The first pertained to the belief that the team had a tendency to lose its opening match. This, India laid to rest with a hard-fought win against China.

The next was the fear psychosis, as a result of which India was wont to succumb in its second match in the back-to-back format. This has happened in the Champions Trophy against Pakistan in Cologne, Amstelveen and Chennai.

However, the seventh edition of the Asia Cup was quite different, as everything fell into place. Ever since Joaquim Carvalho took over the reins, even though amidst a lot of apprehensions, there has been a refreshing change in the Indian team. The coach believes in enhancing the known strengths of the Indian players rather than moulding them into something that is alien in concept and not conforming to our hockey culture. His conviction stems from the fact that the innate qualities of dribbling, effective stick-work, goodness of sharp and short passing must be amalgamated with the values of long hits, proper timing and finish.

It is not easy to assimilate all these in a short span of time, but Carvalho succeeded in doing it. This was first noticed at the Sultan Azlan Shah Trophy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in May this year, then at the Champions Challenge, in Boom, Belgium, and finally culminating in full bloom at the Asian Cup in Chennai.

The self-belief exuded by the Indian team said it all, and the manner in which its players rose to the occasion was commendable.

To showcase the win as epochal would be an exaggeration. Neither should it be projected as a panacea for the malaise afflicting the sport in various layers in the country. Suffice it to say, the showing managed to mangle the cobwebs of despair, the elements of negativism, and above all, the contempt some sections had for the sport since its decline and fall from the pedestal.

The crowds that thronged the stadium each day and for the final, for which the gates were closed, leaving around 2000 people waiting outside, indicated that the sport is regaining its popularity.

Prabhjot Singh, the top scorer with 15 goals, symbolised the efficacy of India’s frontline workouts. Individually, he was brilliant, be it in initiating a move on the left or smashing in those flashy backhanders. He was the heart and soul of the attack.

If Prabhjot still nurses a sense of disillusionment over the treatment meted out to him in 2005, he is justified. As a player who once formed a brilliant trio with Gagan and Deepak, he had won the acclaim of all. He had suffered a loss of form, but Carvalho put his faith in this lissom and graceful player.

Goalkeeper Baljit Singh’s case is almost similar. Forced to languish in the shadow of Adrian D’Souza and Bharat Chettri, he went on tours but did not get to play in a single game. However, in the current dispensation, he is Carvalho’s number one choice. The coach’s unshakeable confidence in him prompted Baljit Singh to touch a new high in the Asia Cup.

Some might argue that the Asia Cup did not feature hitters of the calibre of Taeke Takema, Santi Friexa or Christopher Zeller and hence Baljit was not properly tested, but the likes of Jang Jong Hyun, Kim Byang Hoon and Yamabori were proficient enough to rattle any goalkeeper. In pressure situations, Baljit Singh showed enviable calm, poise and temperament to come out unscathed.

The role played by Tushar Khandekar and Shivendra Singh in the frontline was commendable. Winger Rajpal Singh too contributed substantially as did the youngsters, Roshan Minj and Sunil.

Credit should also go to the mid-fielders, especially Ignace Tirkey, who had come back after an injury. But the towers of strength were the wing halves, Gurbaj on the right and Prabodh Tirkey on the left.

Joyous moment… India’s Shivendra Singh (left) celebrates with team-mate Rajpal Singh after scoring a goal against South Korea in the final.-R. RAGU

As the linkman, Sardara Singh was confidence personified. If there is any youngster in the Indian team who has made remarkable strides in recent months, it is this gangling star. His interceptions and tackling were very effective. However, he should curb his over-enthusiasm for chasing and tackling his opponents. The two yellow cards he received in the semifinal and final are warning enough for Sardara to take corrective course.

While the solidity of Dilip Tirkey needs no emphasis, the quiet efficiency of William Xalco must be mentioned here. The compactly built defender impressed with the way in which he dispossessed the rival attackers and made timely clearances during penalty corners.

That 45 of the 57 goals India scored came through combined work on the field reiterates the need for having a penalty corner specialist. The success rate of the young Raghunath was appreciable, but Carvalho had problems in finding him a place in the eleven. There were occasions when India forced a spate of penalty corners, but without Raghunath the drills that went into the execution of the penalty corners were anything but perfect.

The way the South Koreans played showed that they were ill-prepared. Even assuming that the Koreans had nothing at stake here, having qualified for the Olympics as Asian Games champions, they were woefully inconsistent.

South Korea’s defence floundered often as was seen when the team almost lost to China after leading 3-1. It had to eventually settle for a 3-3 draw.

Unusually, South Korea lost focus after a defeat looked imminent. And whatever the provocation, it had no reason to stage a walkout in a cup final. This left a sour note.

Jang Jong Hyun was outstanding for the team in drag flicks. On the whole, Korea’s showing was very uninspiring. Malaysia, on the other hand, made one sit up and take notice. Its new coach Sarjit Singh has succeeded in restoring the confidence of the team that lay in a shambles following its sixth place finish at the 2006 Doha Asian Games.

In the Asia Cup, the Malaysians were on target right from the opening day, thanks to the experience of Chua Boon Huat, the opportunism of Ismail Abu, the elegant dribbling on the flank by Tajuddin, the hard work of Jiwa Mohan and the penalty corner conversions of Zulkifli. However, it was goalkeeper Kumar Subramaniam who elevated Malaysia’s approach to a different plane. He was outstanding in every match and peaked against Korea in the semifinal.

The individualism of Yamabori and Katayama was hardly the stuff that could take Japan beyond the semifinals. As for China, it proved to be a difficult combination to tackle. The team, however, felt the absence of Li Song despite the good work done by Na Yubo, Hu Huiren and De Yunze.

Pakistan was pathetic. To finish sixth, its worst ever performance in the championship, was a huge disappointment. The team never showed the verve and vivacity for which it is known. Skipper Rehan Butt flopped, and owing to this the Pakistan frontline was insipid and innocuous. There was no depth in the mid-field either, while the much touted drag flickers, Imran Warsi, Muhammad Imran and Imran Khan, did nothing worthwhile in penalty corners. “Oh, for a Sohial Abbas,” someone, somewhere must have wailed! Even the usually breezy Shakeel Abbasi was out of tune. The defeat to China in the match to decide fifth and sixth places filled Pakistan’s cup of woe.

The rest of the teams — Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Thailand — played well within themselves, secure in the knowledge that playing against the heavyweights and losing were a learning process.

The conduct of the championship, after some initial hiccups over the title sponsor until the national telecom — BSNL — stepped in, drew appreciation from every quarter, including the Asian Hockey Federation Council, which met in Chennai. The team of K. Jothikumaran, the organising secretary, rightly deserved the words of commendation from P. Alagendra, the Secretary-General of the Asian Hockey Federation.