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'Without Pillay, India is at 50 per cent'

July 11, 2003 18:24 IST

Indian hockey is on a huge high.

An eight-year sponsorship deal with Sahara Parivar and two four-nation tournament victories in Sydney and Hamburg have put the team in a very confident frame of mind ahead of the upcoming six-nation Champions Trophy.

But former hockey greats Mervyn Fernandis, Joaquim Carvalho and Iqbaljit Singh Grewal have cautioned against going overboard.

Fernandis, the wily inside-right who represented India at the 1980, 84, 88 Olympics, and also captained the team at the junior World Cup in Versailles, France, in 1979, where India finished fifth, feels the recent run of success offers hope for the future.

Jugraj Singh celebrates a goal against Pakistan in the Sydney tri-nation tourney"I would congratulate the team. Any victory should be applauded. We have beaten teams that we have not beaten in a long time. We should be happy," he said.

"But we should not get carried away. Right now, they [the players] need to take it tournament by tournament. Instead of talking about the winning the Olympics, we need to worry about qualifying for it. Qualifying for any major tournament is always more difficult than actually playing the tournament itself," he added.

Joaquim Carvalho, who represented India in the 1984 Olympics, echoes Fernandis's views.

"Everybody loves a winner. The performance has no doubt been good. But one must remember we have always done well in the smaller tournaments.

"The Europeans are trying new formations, strategies and players. The three/four-nation invitational tournaments are their ways of grooming their young players... by inviting international opposition.

"These smaller tournaments are the ones where we always perform well. It is in the major tournaments that we are found wanting," he says.

Iqbaljit Singh Grewal, also a member of the 1984 Olympics team and currently on the IHF selection panel, also lauded the twin victories, but hastened to add that not much should be read into them.

"No doubt the wins are very welcome, but we need to use these tournaments to learn as much as we can. A lot of the other teams are trying out stuff. But a win is a win."

Since the team returned from Hamburg, the satraps in the IHF and players in the current team have been going gaga about winning a medal at the Olympics though the biggest challenge in front of the team right now is the Champions Trophy.

"The Champions Trophy is the biggest challenge. It has the best teams in the world and winning it would guarantee us a spot in the Olympics," says Fernandis.

"The cycle of hyping up the team is an old one. It happened to our team in 1984 and 1988 too. In '88, just before the Olympics we won against Pakistan and people talked about us winning the gold. In 84, we won a four-nation tournament involving New Zealand, Australia and Malaysia," explained Fernandis.

Carvalho, on the other hand, feels we need to analyze every aspect of each team's performance to be successful.

"We are inconsistent as a team and in major tournaments, it is the mental toughness that matters the most," said the former midfielder.

The Indian team in a huddle"The mistake we make at these small tournaments is that we wear down our tried and tested players like Dhanraj Pillay and Baljit Singh Dhillon. They are tried and tested, but as they age and their physical fitness goes down, they rely on experience. So, maybe, using them in all the tournaments before a major is like throwing open your trump card."

Iqbaljit feels the team's greatest strength is the good mix of youth and experience that it is blessed with.

"The youngsters are trying hard to cope up with the seniors and there is great feeling of togetherness in the team. They have a really good goalkeeper in Devesh Chauhan and it all augurs well for this team."

Carvalho feels the team is strong in attack and midfield but the defence has some chinks.

"The trick is to be consistent," he says.

So what advice do these greats of yesteryear have for the team?

"All I can say to these boys is: just keep going. Maybe the good times have come and this time we will not flatter to deceive," says Fernandis.

"Consistency," says Carvalho, "is required, and we need a fit Dhanraj Pillay. Without Pillay, India is at 50 per cent."

Iqbaljit summed it up the best.

"I mean you cannot criticize this team. They really play for the country. They get a 20-dollar allowance when they go abroad. If they were earning three lakhs then we could have criticized them. Right now they need all the support they can get."

Ashish Magotra