August 23, 2000
Looking for lost lustre
Dhanraj Pillay, the former Indian hockey captain's response to a query from a newshound was: "We won the Asiad gold after 32 years, we will win the Olympic gold after a gap of 20."
Cricket, now under a cloud, may well lose it's preeminence as the top sport if the Indian hockey team is able to garner the gold at the Sydney Olympiad as predicted by the ebullient Pillay in the capital, the day before the team departed for Australia.
Indian Hockey Federation president K P S Gill had gone on record a long while back saying India will qualify for the semi-finals this time.
Is that only optimism or is there sufficient reason for the Indian hockey side to make it to the last four at Sydney?
Gill says, "That is a perception that funds currency in hockey circles."
While he has taken stock of this, the assessment is based on certain facts emerging from the training and exposure programme of the IHF for the hockey squad.
"For one, this team is physically very fit," he says. "Two, it has been trained well; three, it has got adequate foreign exposure and lastly, they have emerged as a very close-knit team without the sort of dissensions which characterises Indian sides from time to time," he adds.
What has been the training like for the probables who were pruned down gradually to 24 after the last camp at Bangalore: "We worked on fitness, penalty-corners and attack versus defence," said Pillay, adding, "as a result our defence is steady and focused while playing the full 70 minutes."
India coach Vasudevan Bhaskaran elaborated further: "We concentrated on skills in both attack an defence of all players." That is in keeping with contemporary hockey which calls upon all eleven to attack and defend, as required.
"This focus was to cut out errors in play," he added, explaining that the forwards can still get away after making errors but the midfield and defence will do so at the team's peril.
Those were the areas where the percentage of error was sought to be brought down by Bhaskaran, captain of the side that won the last hockey gold for India 20 years ago.
Unlike the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where India was pitted with Germany, Pakistan, Spain, Argentina and the USA, at Sydney, they have to contend against host Australia, South Korea, Spain, Poland and Argentina.
At Atlanta, they had lost to Argentina in the opener and could not recover thereafter. In Sydney, by alchemy or coincidence, whatever you may call it, India plays Argentina in it's opening match. It is strange indeed that Argentina was not amongst the 12 that qualified to play at the Sydney Olympiad. As the first reserve team, in fact, they stepped into the shoes of South Africa, who were withdrawn by their Olympic association.
Is history going to repeat itself? "We shall see to it that it doesn't," was captain Ramandeep Singh's reply to this poser. "We lost one nil to Argentina, then drew to both Germany and Pakistan, beat Spain, the eventual silver medalists 3-1, yet failed to make it to the semi-finals at Atlanta owing to umpiring decisions going against us," he said.
Pillay echoes Ramandeep's anguish and corroborates that a few umpiring decisions did go against India. He puts the Argentina loss in perspective: "Losing to Argentina turned out to be a big mistake; had we even drawn against them, we would have been in the semi-finals."
Pundits of the game have already averred that India's Group 'B' in the men's hockey event at Sydney is the weaker of the two groups. Coach Bhaskaran doesn't think so, nor does captain Ramandeep. A victory over Argentina, with draws against Australia and Korea should see India through to the semi-finals, because strangely enough, India invariably has the measure of Spain and, at the least, should force a draw against them. As for the sixth team of the group -- Poland -- India shouldn't be hard pressed to beat them.
With defending champions Holland, Germany, Pakistan, Great Britain, Canada and Malaysia in the other group, India does seem to have an easier terrain to cover in order to reach the semi-finals stage.
Will they ride on their luck or will they let an Argentina happen to them again? Seven of the 22 and likely seven of the eventual 16, were part of the squad that let Argentina ride roughshod over them in 1996, at Atlanta. Much water has flown down the Krishna near Bangalore where the team had its last camp. After touching a nadir -- the ninth position at the '98 World Cup, Indian hockey marked its resurgence at the end of that same year by winning the Asiad gold at Bangkok. Six of that squad were subsequently axed and only two of those six have been re-selected for Sydney.
Have we missed the opportunity then to strength the side further and by that token it's chances at Sydney?
Gill, who had played 'Robespierre' then, has this reply: "One of the six never played in the Asian Games and was on the bench; of the other three, well, they were past their prime and my feeling is that to go by reputation and not by form is not the best way of running a sports administration." Only for Ballal are hockey pundits likely to rebut Gill. The resurrection of Mukesh Kumar and Dhanraj Pillay, however, has given the right flank an edge on attack.
Captain Ramandeep Singh, midfielder Mohammad Riaz, defender Dilip Tirkey and the two Baljeet's -- Dhillon and Saini make up the seven Samurai who fell to Argentina and to consequent relegation. Those seven are not only experienced hands, they have tasted the bitterness of defeat to a less skilled foe and surely, there have been moments of introspection in the intervening years.
"It was our biggest mistake," acknowledges Pillay. "And we have learnt from it. This time we are better prepared," he adds.
Bhaskaran, as coach, paints a larger canvas. He was the captain when India won gold the last time in 1980. After that came the deluge. Fifth at Los Angeles in 1984, sixth at Seoul in 1988, seventh at Barcelona in 1992 and eighth at Atlanta in 1996. Bhaskaran says, "We will not repeat the mistakes of 1984, '88, '92 and '96."
At the moment we only have his word for it. But of the entire squad of 22 players and seven officials, he is, perhaps, least given to hyperbole and overstatement. It is quite clear and certain from what Bhaskaran said, that they are not going to repeat the mistake of taking with them two key injured players as they did for the '98 World Cup: "We are taking 22 players for two reasons. One, we are going a month in advance and if there are any injuries, as this is an injury-prone game, then it is better that we send back the injured rather than replace them. For those who will replace them may not be training at the level that we will be doing in Australia."
As for the youth cum experience theme, the seven who played at Atlanta are veterans indeed. Then, as captain Ramandeep points out, "Some of the young players like Gagan Ajit, Sameer Dad and Lazarus Barla have been around for sometime now and so the squad combines experiences with youth in a real sense."
Bhaskaran, who before this five-month assignment as senior coach was essentially coaching the junior Indian side and took them to a silver medal in the Junior World Cup at Milton Keynes in '97, says, "We are taking some junior boys because it will serve them in good stead and they us in the future."
While that is laudable, sports enthusiasts do not want the Sydney Olympics to form another learning curve for the hockey team. They would want it to deliver. Twenty years ago we won a gold in a truncated field, rendered so on account of the boycott of Moscow Olympics by Western nations. 16 years before Moscow, we won gold at Tokyo in 1964. We had bronze at Mexico in 1968 and a bronze at Munich in 1972. A gold may be a far cry, but a place on the podium, nevertheless, is expected of the squad.
"Having won the (four-nation) Perth tournament and having beaten Australia in Australia has raised our morale and confidence levels," said captain Ramandeep. Bhaskaran reiterated that sentiment: "The boys are confident in such a way that we are not going there as underdogs."
India's hockey has always been pleasing and a delight for the aesthete even in its years in the wilderness. It is in it's finishing and inability to score that has been, in these years of dismal performance, it's Achilles heel and it's biggest susceptibility. The gold at Bangkok in 1998 one hopes has brought Indian hockey out of the wilderness.
Assuming that it has realistically, what are our chances at Sydney? That question, at the moment is best answered by Bhaskaran: "All I can say is I am positive." He adds, "I cannot predict, for in sport, it is hazardous to do so. But I can assure you that we will play our matches at a high level of competence."
IHF president K P S Gill has predicted a semi-final place for India this time. "That will be our first target, says Bhaskaran. Pillay, on the other hand, has said, "We will win gold." But that was more flourish for the benefit of scribes rather than actual conviction.
A place in the semi-finals for the Indian hockey side, nevertheless, may well be on the cards. Yet, in spite of achieving that goal, a place on the podium may still elude them.
All that Bhaskaran promises is that "the performance of the team will definitely be pleasing and better than the last Olympics."
We were eighth in 1996. Are we going to be placed anywhere between fourth and seventh at Sydney or are we going to be on the medal podium? While my heart, like that of all Indian sports lovers, wants the latter, the mind says it is the former that we are likely to achieve.
Mail Sports Editor
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