The 25th Champions Trophy will begin from August 16 at Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where two decades ago, in the 1982, India had its best performance by winning the bronze medal at the tournament of elite hockey-playing nations. Yours truly happened to be part of the team that was in the running for the gold before India played its last match against Australia.
Goalkeeper Romeo James, full-backs Vineet Kumar, Manohar Topno, Rajinder Singh, M M Sommaya, Gurmail Singh, Joaquim Carvalho, Charanjit Singh, Surinder Singh Sodhi, Mohammad Shahid and Zafar Iqbal were then, what you would call, the first eleven. The team was not as experienced as the present one, but some superlative performances by full-back Manohar Topno, who was called the 'Black Diamond' by our coach Balbir Singh Sr., Shahid and Rajinder Singh, who incidentally is the coach of the present team, saw us finish among the first three in the world.
Our memorable match was against our arch-rivals, Pakistan. It was one of the best matches I had played in. It was a fast-paced match with both teams playing attacking hockey from the word go. After a heart-stopping battle, we won 5-4. Rajinder scored a hat-trick and emerged the hero of the day. The man will be in Amsterdam again, but this time as coach. One will have to wait and see if he can perform a hat-trick of wins as coach, having already tasted success twice, in the four-nation tournaments in Australia and Germany recently.
The Champions Trophy has always been the toughest of all international hockey tournaments, as the world's best teams play in a round-robin league. A team has to play six matches in nine days, a gruelling schedule which demands that players are in prime physical condition to survive till the end of the tournament. Initially, the tournament was decided directly on points after the round-robin league was completed, but the past few editions have seen a change, wherein the teams play for final placings on the concluding day.
The present team, led by Dhanraj Pillay, is capable of finishing among the first three. If they can maintain the same standard and percentage while defending and converting penalty-corners, like they did in their outings in Sydney and Hamburg recently, a medal is theirs for the taking. Never before has an Indian team been packed with four players capable of converting penalty-corners in various set-pieces. In the ranks are seasoned defender Dilip Tirkey, Kanwalpreet Singh, who are both good direct hitters; the stocky Jugraj Singh and Baljit Singh Dhillon, both powerful drag flickers.
The forward line, comprising of Dhanraj, Dhillon, Prabhjot Singh, Deepak Thakur and Gagan Ajit Singh, has been combining well so far and is expected to deliver. The midfield is good to the extent of defending but will have to improve in distribution and overlapping, as an extra load seems to fall on the two seasoned campaigners -- Dhanraj and Dhillon.
The other worry for the team could be the substitutions in the forward line. Tejbir Singh is the only genuine extra forward in the team. In the absence of Sandeep Michael, who is indisposed, coach Rajinder Singh has opted for a relatively new player in Didar Singh. In my opinion, it is a gamble to field a player who has little or no exposure to a senior international tournament. That Rajinder opted for Didar ahead of others in the camp who have far more international exposure speaks of the confidence the coach has in the new player. I guess assistant coach Baldev Singh will be a happy man, as he has been coaching the Namdhari team in the past and this will be the yet another instance when a Namdhari player has made it to the national team.
If my memory serves me right, the last Namdhari player to make it to the national team, and that too for the Olympics in 1992, was Didar Singh Sr. We never heard of him after that. Presently he is the coach of the Namdhari team.
With just a few days to go, the players have got into some sort of controversy regarding financial matters, which does not augur well for the team. One hopes these problems are now behind and the focus is on the big test ahead. Otherwise, all the excellent work over the last few months would mean nothing.
- Mervyn Fernandis represented India at the 1980, '84 and '88 Olympics. He also captained India at the junior World Cup in Versailles, France, in 1979.