Tuesday, Nov 04, 2003
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By S. Thyagarajan
Missing the bronze medal at the Champions Trophy and the car crash that rendered that brilliant striker, Jugraj Singh, hors de combat were the two major blots in an otherwise memorable year for Indian hockey.
Rewarding in more than one sense, what needs to be acknowledged is the all round approbation by the international community, which notes with satisfaction the unmistakeable signs of resurgence.
The sixth spot in the first ever official World rankings by the International Hockey Federation, behind the two other Asian countries, Korea and Pakistan, however, should remind everyone that the road to the summit is long and arduous.
As the chief coach, Rajinder Singh, observed, four titles in a year is no mean achievement. Though one cannot belittle the significance of the triumphs in Sydney against Australia and in the Panasonic Masters at Hamburg against Spain and Argentina, the outcome that really underlined the excellence was the gold medal win at the recent Asia Cup at Kuala Lumpur. This victory ensured a berth in the next World Cup.
The rejoicing over, the fifth win against Pakistan this year in the Afro-Asian Games only mirrors the popular enthusiasm for the sport. Interestingly, despite the reluctance of the Government to permit a bilateral series with Pakistan in major disciplines like cricket and hockey, the teams have met eight times between June and October. It would have been one, or even two more, if India had not withdrawn from the Azlan Shah tournament, again, on a direction from the Ministry of External Affairs.
India met Pakistan twice in the twin four-nation tournaments at Perth and Sydney, twice in the Champions Trophy at Amstelveen, in the Asia Cup in Kuala Lumpur and in the recent Afro-Asian Games, winning five, losing two and drawing one.
Any endeavour at enumerating the statistical documentation of the India-Pakistan meetings on the hockey field fails to mirror the passion, the spirit and the romance of it. The teams were not playing their best stars at Hyderabad, yet the fervour worked up had to be seen to be believed.
As the year tapers off and leads to a mood of introspection, the need to look ahead becomes paramount.
It would be churlish to deny the large measure of credit to Rajinder Singh for transforming a good squad into a performing force. True, he has weathered a welter of criticism with stoic silence for the way he handled the media as also his approach to player-power management, especially involving some senior stars, notably the voluble and volatile Dhanraj Pillay.
But judged in terms of results, what Rajinder Singh has accomplished is unmatched by any of the previous coaches who handled the teams in the last decade or so. But Rajinder Singh will be the first to acknowledge that he is blessed with the best assembly of senior and junior talent. It must also be noted that he also had a hand in shaping the juniors although the preparatory work in this exercise should go to the former National coach, C.R. Kumar.
The victory in the Junior World Cup at Hobart in 2001 with Rajinder Singh at the helm bears out this fact. If a coach is to be judged by results, Rajinder Singh gets the best marks for that. And this makes talk on roping in a foreign coach, or even an expert consultant, meaningless.
India probably is the only team now in contemporary hockey that does not overtly depend on specialists for conversion in penalty corners. Gagan Ajit Singh, Deepak Thakur, Prabhjot Singh and Sandeep Micheal strike spectacular goals leaving drag flickers as mere reserves. Without Sohail Abbas, Pakistan looked powerless.
As the former Dutch coach, who is currently handling Spain as a powerful rising force, Maurits Hendriks, observed not long ago, India is the most balanced in all departments and has an excellent blend of youth and experience.
The stress should now be on how to conserve this brilliant bunch. There are no two opinions that the Indians had a very busy schedule throughout the year and the players deserve a spell of relaxation before they assemble for the more crucial year ahead. The institutions which employ these players should desist from making demands on them to figure in domestic events simply because they are the paymasters. The whole idea should be seen in the national perspective and from the standpoint of facilitating the national team ensuring a spot in the Olympics.
From now to the first event of the 2004, the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in January, the players have just two months leeway. Assuming that the preparations begin by the second week of December, the players have hardly 40-odd days to rest and recoup. It is now in the interest of the Indian Hockey Federation to make all efforts to see the players do not burn out as they are prone to do on synthetic pitches.
The series of spectacular performances and the brand of hockey displayed by India have attracted world-wide attention. Now, India is in the list of every country hosting a tournament. Apart from the Azlan Shah Cup, for which India has already conveyed its acceptance, invitations have come from Australia for twin four-nation tournaments in April, and also for a four-nation event in Amstelveen in June-July.
The priority for India, however, is the Olympic qualifier at Madrid. Efforts are also afoot to involve India in a tournament in Dubai.
In this context, the statement by the IHF Secretary, K. Jothikumaran, that India will not engage Pakistan in a series before the Olympics, is pragmatic. One hopes the same measure of pragmatism governs the programmes before the Olympics, taking into consideration the work-load on the players.
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