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Resurgent India eye hockey glory
July 16, 2003 12:36 IST
Last Updated: July 16, 2003 12:41 IST
Hockey, once India's national game, is making a comeback after years in the doldrums thanks to a talented young side who are starting to win again in Asian style.
Recent impressive victories in tournaments in Australia and Germany have raised hopes of a return to Olympic hockey glory in a country where cricket is now the national sporting obsession.
India's men's hockey players slumped to seventh in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and came 10th at last year's World Cup in Kuala Lumpur after a poor start which led to the coach's sacking midway through the tournament.
But a youthful side beat hosts Australia 5-3 in the Sydney final in May after an emotional victory over eternal rivals Pakistan during the double-legged tournament.
Then followed victory in a four-nation tournament in Hamburg last month, where India lost 3-2 to Germany before downing both Spain and Argentina.
India are now gearing up enthusiastically for the elite Champions Trophy six-nation event in Amsterdam next month against world champions Germany, Olympic gold medallists Netherlands, Australia, Argentina and Pakistan.
"It is a good start in our build-up," said coach Rajinder Singh, a member of India's gold medal-winning squad at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
"Lots of work still needs to be done, but these victories have given the boys a lot of confidence."
After dominating the game from the 1930s until the 1970s India have achieved little of note since winning their eighth and last Olympic gold in 1980.
But Singh, who coached India to the junior World Cup in 2001, has successfully drafted in most of the members of that squad since taking over the senior team last year.
Last week the hockey team received an extra boost when they found a new sponsor in the Sahara Group, who also support the national cricket team, and signed an eight-year deal.
"I am confident we can live up to this hype," said captain Dhanraj Pillay, a striker and India's most capped player with over 325 appearances.
"Beating Australia was big and the victory in Hamburg has boosted us," Pillay, 35, added.
Former captain and coach M.P. Ganesh said Pillay's maturity was helping the younger players.
"He is the key, his behaviour has lifted team spirit," he said. "There is a big improvement in overall skills and their penalty corner conversions."
Experts also feel India are being rewarded for their return to the Asian style of attacking hockey after trying in vain for years to adapt the European positional game.
"The approach now is, 'let them score, we'll outscore them,'" said hockey expert K. Arumugham. "Earlier, we used to sit back and then concede a late goal through a set-piece move and lose."
Zafar Iqbal, a former player who quit as coach in 1994 before the continental style was introduced, said the return to the old approach was long overdue.
"We never mastered the European style, were never good at penalty corner conversions," he said.
"We have to attack, even if it means more risks."