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The Indian hockey team wins the Asia Cup for the first time in six attempts and earns a place in the World Cup in 2006.
WHEN the Indian hockey team left for Kuala Lumpur in quest of the elusive Asia Cup in September, not many were genuinely optimistic about its chances of victory. There were several disturbing factors that gave rise to this feeling. The principal one was the motor accident in the first week of September involving penalty corner specialist Jugraj Singh, casting a shadow over the player's future. Jugraj was instrumental in netting a few spectacular goals in the preceding Champions Trophy at Amstelveen (the Netherlands). The ban imposed by chief coach Rajinder Singh on the media in New Delhi on witnessing the trial matches prior to the Asia Cup soured the relations between the two. Rajinder Singh was convinced that the over-exposure after the back-to-back triumphs in Australia and Germany had hampered the coaching programme, and the players were losing their focus from the Champions Trophy.
The move to restrict the camp in Delhi and shift it to Singapore so as to afford enough time for the players to practise under floodlights had to be reversed in the wake of the renewed fear of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). Overall, the picture was one of gloom; certainly not conducive to the players enjoying a happy frame of mind.
Inspiring, however, was Jugraj Singh's emotional appeal from the hospital bed in Ludhiana to the players to win the trophy and present it to him. The team achieved that, demonstrating an admirable measure of fortitude and skill, and automatically earned a place for the next World Cup in 2006. Until the 2003 edition, India, as the official brochure put it, was only a "bride's-maid", in the Asia Cup, the reference being to the series of four silver medals won since its inception in 1982. In the last edition in 1999, India slipped down to the third position at the same venue.
So India began its campaign as a bronze medallist against the fast improving China, which had played more than a dozen warm up matches in Malaysia and Pakistan in the past two months. The odds were in favour of Pakistan (although its last victory was in 1989) after it won the prestigious Azlan Shah Trophy in March against the World Champion, Germany.
The 5-1 margin against the tough and speedy Chinese gave a definite indication that the Indians were moving into a winning rhythm. The next match against Bangladesh, as the 10-0 verdict indicates, afforded the coach enough room to experiment. If India had scored a goal more, it would have pressured Pakistan into a must-win situation in the tie to decide the topper from Pool B. Try as the Indians did, the one goal eluded them.
The contest against Pakistan – the fifth this year – assumed the contours of a final, for the winner could avoid playing South Korea, the defending champion, in the semi-final. As always, it was a pulsating contest with the teams sharing the honours in the first half, but India went down 2-4 in the end. Two penalty corners, one by Wassem Ahmad, and the other by the inimitable Sohail Abbas, left India in the pit of defeat.
India actually picked up the threads only against South Korea in the semi-final. The 4-2 win, with the match-winner coming minutes before the hooter, underlined the competence of the team to strike lethal blows in the dying stages to reverse the result in its favour. Since the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok India had not beaten South Korea in a competition.
In the final that can be described as a classic contest, India created history, annexing the Asia Cup for the first time in six attempts. Before a huge gathering and in an atmosphere mirroring the national fervour and passion, India nailed Pakistan after sharing four goals in the first half. A breathtaking match winning shot by Ignace Tirkey, about 87 seconds before the hooter, sent Pakistan crashing. As though this was not enough, Prabhjot Singh flicked in from a scrimmage, seven seconds from end, to ensure the trophy after a comfortable 4-2 victory. This was the moment everyone was waiting for.
On introspection, it can be asserted that India was the most balanced side on view. The link between the defence and the attack, with a strong midfield operating consistently, was exemplary. Indisputably, it was the tight midfield work that contributed to the happy ending. Ignace Tirkey will be remembered for years for the way in which he knifed his way through and scored that peach of a goal. His performance throughout was meritorious, but he was outstanding in the final, rendering the right flank attack innocuous. Ghazanfar Ali was simply dazed by the way Ignace plucked the ball from his stick. Once Ignace, who had excellent support from Bimal Lakra, Viren Resquinha and Vikram Pillay, blocked this avenue successfully, the Pakistani frontline lost its fervour and fluency.
A lot of credit should also go to the deep defence where veteran Dilip Tirkey and the young Kanwalpreet Singh were prominent. Initially goalkeeper Devesh Chauhan did not inspire much confidence; the two goals he conceded against Pakistan in the first meeting were anything but challenging to his experience and expertise. But in the final, and also against South Korea earlier, Devesh was in his elements and effected a handful of delightful saves, demonstrating the quickness of his eye and footwork.
Coach Rajinder Singh has immense faith in the young trio, Gagan Ajit Singh, Deepak Thakur and Prabhjot Singh. His decision not to field the 18-year-old Karnataka lad, Sandeep Micheal, who had played superbly, albeit briefly, against Pakistan and South Korea raised many eyebrows. Rajinder Singh defended this as a tactic to preserve Sandeep for the next decade. It was apparent that Gagan, Deepak and Prabhjot were frittering away chances galore through sheer overconfidence and inaccuracy. But the threesome touched peak form in the semi-final – Deepak scored a superb goal in the final minute against South Korea – and against Pakistan in the final.
While one must admire the brilliance of the youth and the inborn proficiency of the Adivasi players, the contribution of the seasoned stars cannot be ignored. Dhanraj Pillay, as always, was the cynosure of all eyes whenever he wove in. Baljit Singh Dhillon can be accused of holding on to the ball a trifle more than necessary, but his body dodges and delectable dribbles contributed to creating openings for the rest. Wing half Baljit Singh Saini controlled the midfield with neat trappings. But it was his distribution that was charming and adroit.
HOCKEY in Pakistan seems to be traversing through a difficult and uncertain phase. The expectation that the team has recovered from the trauma of finishing beyond the medal bracket in the Busan Asian Games, for the first time in an Asian Games since 1958, has not come through despite its triumph in the Azlan Cup. The sacking of Sheikh Shahnaz as coach and the disciplinary action taken against Sohail Abbas and Wassem Ahmed (both were fined Rs.100,000 for participating in the German league without the federation's endorsement) raised a great deal of debate affecting the preparation and focus.
Proficiency, always the plus point with Pakistani players, was pronounced, but not physical fitness. The team backpedalled most of the second half and paid a heavy price. Too much emphasis on Sohail's drag flicks looked misplaced, especially when the team was denied penalty corners in the second half of the final. Barring Kashif Jawad, the rest of the team in the attacking line was woefully inadequate. Even the hard work put in by the skilful midfielders, Mohamed Saqlain and Wassem, failed to spur them into action. Whenever Kashif was marked tightly, the attack was rendered stingless.
SINCE the 1986 Asiad gold medal in Seoul, South Korea has been a force, even overshadowing the subcontinental gi<147,2,7>ants India and Pakistan. In the two Asia Cup championships, played in 1994 (Hiroshima) and 1999 (Kuala Lumpur), Korea triumphed against India and Pakistan respectively. And it also won the Asian Games Gold at Busan, ensuring a berth for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. But the difficulty in building a new squad without the likes of Song Tae Seung and Yew Woon Koon is now showing up. Its bid to enter the Champions Trophy suffered a blow when Spain carved out a thumping 7-3 win in the final of the Champions Challenge in South Africa in June.
For Kuala Lumpur, South Korea fielded an inexperienced squad with as many as seven newcomers. The team lacked not only skills, but, amazingly, fitness, the basis of Koreans' traditional aggression and athleticism. Lee Jung Seon, who scored a hat-trick in the bronze medal match against Japan, and Hyo Sik were the only two who demonstrated the known Korean flair. That Korea was in for a tough time became clear when it shared points with Malaysia in the opening match in Pool A.
The Japanese had improved marginally as their rating from fifth to the fourth position shows. Stick work was not their virtue but fitness and powerful running compensated for this. Solid defence backed by neat trapping made Japan a tough opponent as the Pakistanis realised in their semi-final game. The 1-3 margin clearly masks the intensity of the battle. Japan sidestepped the favourites, Malaysia, to get into the last four, after a 3-2 victory. Iwadate, Katayama and Tobita consistently harassed the rival defence and even scored from penalty corners.
For more than one reason, the fifth spot for Malaysia after its bronze win at the Busan Asiad was a disappointing climbdown. Nothing is going right for the team this year. First, Malaysia was pushed to the bottom of the table in the Azlan Shah trophy before its home audience; then the wooden spoon was again the prize at the Champions Challenge. So the team and its German coach Paul Lissek, were under pressure to perform. But the players, many of whom were in poor physical condition, were below par. The media castigated the handling of the team by Paul Lissek and demanded his removal. After the Asia Cup concluded, Paul Lissek was removed from the national team and asked to look after some developmental work with the juniors.
Although the turn of events has been pitiable, it clearly shows that coaches are expected to show results. The Malaysian fans considered the defeat against Japan and the struggle with Hong Kong (2-1) an affront to the team on which a good deal of money was spent. The foreign coach was reportedly paid a salary of 30,000 Malaysian ringgit (Rs.3,60,000 approximately) a month. While the seniors, Kuhen Shanmuganathan and Nor Azlan Baker, lacked consistency, youngsters like Misron, Nishel Kumar and Roslie have a long way to go to give Malaysia a strong attack.
China is one squad that is palpably moving up. It was very refreshing to witness the Chinese absorbing the virtues of Korean hockey. The verve, velocity and spirit that the Chinese showed even against seasoned combinations like India and Pakistan deserve appreciation. A bronze medallist in the inaugural edition in 1982, China stagnated a bit but its recent showing, especially in the wake of the remarkable performances of the women's team, is striking enough to predict a medal in the not-too-distant future. The Chinese men will definitely become a force to reckon with before the Beijing Olympics in 2008. A consistent striker like Song Yi would walk into any of the teams in the continent. He scored seven of the eight goals that China scored against Bangladesh. Lu Feng, a midfielder with conspicuous skills, is the other.
Hong Kong pushed Bangladesh to the eighth spot, the lowest in the competition since it began participating. Bangladesh, which finished sixth in the last edition, will now have to compete in the second division along with Singapore, Taipei, Sri Lanka, and Thailand to make the list in the next edition. This is sad indeed for a country which has a fairly long hockey history and conducts a heavy-budget national league, inviting top stars like Sohail Abbas, Wassem and Dhanraj Pillay.
The final placings are as follows: 1. India 2. Pakistan 3. South Korea 4. Japan 5. Malaysia 6. China 7. Hong Kong 8. Bangladesh.