September 17, 2000

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This is India's best team in the astro turf era: Claudius

Inconsistency could rob the current Indian hockey team of a genuine medal opportunity, according to Leslie Claudius, one of the most successful hockey Olympians ever, who in Sydney to watch the Olympic Games.

The former Indian hockey captain and four-time Olympian says the present Indian team suffers from too much inconsistency, both from its star individuals and as a team, and this could affect its chances of winning a medal in Sydney.

"Our big players, like the Pillays and Mukeshs, dazzle on one day and are very ordinary the next. And that affects the performance of the team. They will have to be more consistent in their individual and team performances to capitalise on what I see as a very open hockey competition in these Games," Claudius told this correspondent on the sunny morning after the Opening ceremony, while watching an Olympic beach volleyball game between the US and Australia.

"You can't afford to play brilliantly and beat Australia one day and then play a lousy game and lose to Argentina the next (This was before India won 3-0 against Argentina). That's what consistency is all about. And that's what should be top priority in a competition of this nature," Claudius said.

However, the man who won three Olympic golds (1948, '52 and '56) and who captained India to a silver in 1960, feels the Indian team does have a realistic chance of winning a hockey medal in Sydney.

"There are two major reasons for that. On one hand we have a pretty good team, definitely the fittest Indian team ever to play on astro turf. On the other hand, I think some of the leading teams in men's hockey are struggling with their rebuilding process a bit," Claudius said.

"This Indian team has been performing pretty well, even winning the last tournament they played here in Australia and that is a good sign.

"However, I think the lack of quality match practice leading up to the Games could tell on the team in the long run, because this is one of the toughest tournaments to perform consistently in," he said.

"I don't think we ought to look too much into our team beating what frankly was some very ordinary club level opposition by a bag full of goals a few days before these Games," he said.

"As Ric Charlesworth so correctly says, teams are bound to have setbacks because of the very nature of the competition at the Olympics. The important thing is to recover quickly from those set backs and to work yourself into top form by the knock-out stage of the tournament. That's what our boys should keep in mind," Claudius said.

Explaining his comment on some teams struggling with their rebuilding process, the man who has his name in the Guinness Book of World records for being the most successful hockey Olympian ever, said he had been watching some club hockey in Australia over the last few weeks. "I come to Australia as often as I can and I watch a lot of their club level hockey. This time I've noticed that there is a general drop in the standards of Australian hockey. That's why their team is struggling to keep their position in the top three of world hockey.

"For example, this is by no stretch of imagination the best team that Australia has sent to the Olympics. So I think our boys should take advantage of this. Neither are the Germans as strong as they have been in the last decades.

"I mean if you saw the match between The Netherlands and Great Britain this morning, the British were on even keel almost throughout the game against the gold medal favourites. You wouldn't have expected that. What I am saying is that it's a very open tournament this time and there may be a few big upsets. I hope our team is one of those who will be upsetting the top three."

Commenting on Sydney's Opening ceremony, he said he knew how Cathy Freeman must have felt holding that torch to light the flame.

"I mean I can remember playing in my first Olympics. It was a thrill to be at the London Olympics in 1948 since it was my maiden venture in international arena. First is always the best. The most memorable moment for me was the opening ceremony. And as world champions, when we entered the stadium, the crowd of over 100, 000 gave us a standing ovation. I had a feeling that I was transported to heaven!" he recalled.

"Cathy must have felt like she was in heaven too when she lit the flame."

Claudius feels it will be very tough for India to go back to even a glimpse of its former glory in Olympic hockey. "Where are the young people playing hockey in India now? Education has become such a necessity that our youth have no time to play sport. If they do, they rather play cricket or tennis which are not only predominant but also providing good facilities," he says.

"Take the case of Leader Paes who I am going too watch here in Sydney. His father Vece was a hockey player and Leander, I believe, would have been exceptional in whatever game he cared to take up. But his father, even being a hockey player, pushed his son into tennis. And unfortunately for Indian hockey, I have to say that it was a correct decision that they made.

"In our days even if a player did not have any education he could easily get a job. But these days education is the only criteria of ensuring a good job in India. In our schools and clubs, which used to be the sources of our talent, hockey is no longer being played. In our days we could become popular hockey players by playing in our localities. Now even some very well know clubs say they cannot afford to run a hockey team and have had second thoughts about having a hockey team. In our days we could turn out six to seven teams to represent the country.

"The standard of hockey in India was very high during that time and it was popular," West Bengal's sportsperson of the Millennium said. He explained that another factor which had to be taken into consideration was the changes to hockey, which have affected Indian and Pakistan the most.

"When we used to play, hockey was absolutely predominant. It was the most popular sport watched by the masses and we certainly did not have the strong opposition as we have now," Claudius said. "The reason for that was simple. In Europe hockey was a summer sport. Unfortunately, in these countries, there were other games which were predominant in summer like cricket, tennis and rugby and therefore grounds were not available for playing hockey there. So hockey was relegated to being a winter sport in those countries. So they could not bring to perfection the finer points of the game on grass. But in the long run hockey being a winter sport actually benefited their hockey because. now the shoe is on the other foot.

"Now they have made great advances in this sport because artificial turf means they can play and practise at any time of the year," the legend said.

Claudius also feels the marketing of the game has been far more successful in Europe and Australia than it has been in India. "I don't think sponsorship can revive the standard of Indian hockey. There are a couple of sponsors presently in hockey and some of our state associations are trying their best. But unfortunately, nobody comes to watch the game! So as far as hockey is concerned, sponsors feel reluctant to come forward. When the sponsors set up their banners on the ground, they find that stands are empty," he said.

"Maybe a medal at Sydney will make some change to Indian hockey. I'm keeping my fingers crossed," Claudius concluded.


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