Yet another crisis resolved

THE crisis syndrome is nothing new to Indian hockey. Times without number it has surfaced and has been tackled, only to emerge again in a different form.

THE crisis syndrome is nothing new to Indian hockey. Times without number it has surfaced and has been tackled, only to emerge again in a different form. So, there was no surprise when there was a period of convulsion as the administration took the first firm step towards preparing the team for the Olympic Games in Athens.

The controversy, that acquired the dimensions of a mass movement, was triggered by the non-inclusion of Dhanraj Pillay. The IHF, basking in the triumph recorded by the national team against Pakistan in the Junior Asia Cup at Karachi, announced the list of probables to be trained in Himachal Pradesh, apart from naming the team for the four-nation event at Gifu (Japan), without Dhanraj and Baljit Dhillon.

As this was construed as a move to keep the key players out of the Olympics, there was a furore which brought into the fold not only a group of former players, but also political bigwigs and the chief of the national Olympic Committee, Suresh Kalmadi. The sympathy wave generated for Dhanraj Pillay evinced a negative response, initially at least, from the administration. But as the pressure grew day by day that the players in question deserved a fair trial over their fitness, the IHF relented. Concerned over the developments, the Sports Ministry sought to clarify where the matter stood, and even played a vital role in impressing on the IHF the need to revamp the selection committee. A six-member panel, which included four former Olympians, was put in place.

Even before the bitter taste of this ugly episode could subside, came the shocking news of the replacement of the successful junior coach, Harendra Singh, by the chief coach for the seniors, Rajinder Singh, for the tournament in Gifu. Rajinder was earlier nominated as an observer for the event. The demoralising defeat in the final against South Korea at Gifu only reinforced the belief that the administration and the chief coach were over-optimistic in evaluating the strength of the squad, which included a handful of seniors. The assumption that a few juniors could be turned into Olympic material proved wrong.

All these are bound to send wrong signals to the fraternity about the preparations for the Olympics. But the administration asserts that every effort now is being directed to give the players the best of facilities wherever they train. Dhanraj and Baljit Dhillon were included for training in Germany (now shifted to the U.S.) under expert physical instructors, while the rest moved to the salubrious conditions in Himachal Pradesh. Even the sponsor, Sahara, lent its helping hand by assuring to fund the training camp to be held abroad.

For the moment, there is a lull, and everything looks focussed on giving everyone a chance to prove his worth. In fact, former Olympian and skipper, Gurbux Singh, has gone on record stating that the net would be cast wide and no deserving player would be left out. The selection panel is also expected to visit the camps and evaluate the progress and quality of coaching.

The time to experiment is over. The material tested has not passed the level of efficiency required for a competition like the Olympics. True, there are a few who performed well enough at the junior level but they are not ripe or mature enough to handle the pressure at the summit. The IHF is left with no option but to rely on experienced players such as Dhanraj and Dhillon to face the rigours and also ensure that every player selected reaches the peak of his fitness before the competition.

A new challenge stems from the recent decision to tighten the rule governing penalty corners. The revised rule prohibits players from charging into the striker with a view to unsettle or upset his rhythm. This is bound to test the mettle of the goal-keepers even more than before. Special attention needs to be paid to improve the quality of goal-keeping, an area which has been proving very vulnerable for the country since the advent of synthetic hockey. For some time, the IHF has had a special goal-keeping coach. Subbiah, a former international, has been doing a sincere job, but the degree of professionalism demanded needs to be fine-tuned even if it means taking the support of a retired goal-keeper such as Ian Taylor.

What the IHF should go all out to ensure is to obliterate the friction between the chief coach and Dhanraj Pillay. It is no secret that that they do not work in harmony. This face-off could be minimised, even if it cannot be eliminated, only if Dhanraj is not saddled with the responsibility of leading the team. It is a hard decision, but the selection committee has to take a pragmatic view, taking into account the overall good of the team whose present skipper, Dilip Tirkey, seems to be enjoying a nice rapport with the chief coach. The administration and the selection committee will inevitably be forced to do some tight-rope walking to harmonise various factors before identifying the 16 for the Olympics.