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V Bhaskaran

Goalkeeping will determine India's progress

August 14, 2004

The long-awaited men's hockey competition at the Athens Olympics will start on Sunday and, as usual, the top contenders will be holders The Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Pakistan, India and Spain.

But among these top six countries, Germany seem to be strong contenders for gold as they are slightly better prepared for the huge challenge coupled with the presence of many senior players in their ranks.

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The Dutch will also be trying hard to wrest the title as another gold will help them match India's envious record of a hat-trick of gold medals at the Olympics.

Australia, one of the top teams in the world for several years, is surprisingly yet to win a gold at the Olympics though they have been very positive in their approach.

Among the other countries, India, Pakistan and Spain seem to have good chances of making it to the semi-final stage.

India have been placed in a Pool B, which is relatively easy when compared to the other Pool A. The new-look Indian team was announced last month at Dusseldorf along with the announcement of appointment of two German coaches, supported by Olympian Jagbir Singh and guided by special goalkeeping coach Frank Leictre of The Netherlands.

How far these new coaches prove successful, only the coming days will tell. Maybe, the time given to these coaches is not sufficient, but I feel the Indian players definitely would have adjusted to the new system of coaching in the short period.

We have struggled in goalkeeping in recent times. India's No.1 'keeper Davesh Chauhan has had a lean period in all the recent tournaments but he must have improved under the new specialist coach.

The skill of second goalkeeper Adrian D'Souza at the senior level has to be judged. I think this area will be the most important factor that will determine India's results to a great extent. With a new penalty-corner rule in force, goalkeeping has assumed all the more importance.

Our deep-defender and captain Dilip Tirkey will be playing his third Olympics and he can expect good support from junior players like William Xalco and Harpal Singh.

Though the youngsters are agile and flexible, the chief responsibility will be on Tirkey at this high level of competition.

In the mid-field, all the five players will be playing their first Olympics and most of them have not been performing at their best in the recent tournaments. If Vikram Pillay, Ignace Tirkey, Viren Rasquinha, Sandeep Singh and Arjun Hallappa play to their potential, India can go a long way.

I still fail to understand how the talented and experienced Baljit Saini was not included in the 16. His presence in the mid-field would have been a great help to the largely inexperienced players.

India's forward line seems to be the best equipped among all the 12 teams in fray. The experience of Dhanraj Pillay and Baljit Dhillon complement the youth in Gagan Ajit Singh, Deepak Takur and Prabhjot Singh. All these five forwards at their best can eliminate any defence. The Indian team will depend heavily on the forward line to deliver the goods.

The most important game for India will be their opener. Statistically, in recent times we are yet to beat the Dutch in any high level competition, a record that the Netherlands will draw confidence from.

But the extensive training in the build-up to the Games should come handy when we face them. We have always tried hard against Holland but somehow towards the end we concede one or two goals and lose the match.

The main area where India has to focus will be the long passes, man to man marking and unforced errors which lead to us conceding easy penalty-corners. If all these areas are handled well, there is no way India will lose against the Dutch.

The Netherlands are very strong in penalty-corner conversion, having strong flickers like Taeke Taekema and Bram Lomans who have proved to be match winners many a time.

If India cross the first hurdle, we can be sure of making it to the semi-finals. Even if we share points with the Dutch it would be a morale boosting display ahead of the next four games. As things stand, we can always salvage three points from New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina.

For the Indian team, it will be a great honour to lock horns with the Dutch on Independence Day. If the Indians pull off a win, they will cherish it for the rest of their lives.

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