September 26, 2000

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Poland rains on India's parade

The Rediff Team

Even through the rain, which cascaded down on the Hockey Centre in Sydney throughout the course of the match, you could see the bitter tears raining down Dhanraj Pillay's face as the final whistle went, with the scoreboard locked on 1-1.

Those tears had their epicentre in a deep well of grief -- for the second Olympics in succession, Dhanraj had played his heart out, with little or no support, and found himself well short of his dream of spearheading India to an Olympic medal.

Today's game must have been exceptionally galling. On three different occasions, he played brilliantly to set up his colleagues with goal-scoring chances, which they missed. (On one of those occasions, Mukesh Kumar with only the goal-keeper to beat, managed instead to crash a stinging shot into Dhanraj's butt!). Finally, he did the job himself, setting it up perfectly for Dilip Tirkey to finish it off. He shored up the defense, he made the moves from the midfield, and he proved dangerous in offense.

Hockey, though, is a team game -- much as Dhanraj would have liked to, he cannot do everything on his own. And it was a team -- lacklustre, unimaginative, leaden-footed -- that meandered to a 1-1 draw against Poland, and now finds itself fighting for the 5th to 8th spots.

The game started in pouring rain which, mercifully, made no difference to the underfoot conditions, but would have created cold conditions inimical to the Indians. Having said that, playing conditions are the same for both teams, and certainly cannot excuse the lacklustre display of the first half.

It was in the first half that the semifinal berth was lost. India never, through the 35 minutes play, ever looked like a cohesive outfit; not once was there an inkling that they had a gameplan and knew what they were doing and why. On display, instead, was a meandering, clueless style of hockey characterised by aimless passing, needless dribbling, panicky clearances from the deep and a complete absence of threatening moves.

Poland was content to play deep in its own half, only breaking free to launch occasional runs deep into rival territory. The difference, though, was that there was a purpose to all that Poland did. Dhanraj was honoured by being the only Indian marked man to man, while the rest of the Polish defence focussed on marking the ball and covering the other Indian forwards. On offense, they stayed with the traditional European game, long passes, rapid runs, with two or three attackers arrowing in on the goal and shooting hard as soon as they got into the zone. Nothing fancy, but it was effective enough to earn three corners to India's none, in the first half. Jude, who has been brilliant throughout this tournament, saved two. The other was a mishit.

Not that India didn't have any chances at all in the first session. It did. Mukesh Kumar in fact had a clear look at goal as early as the 4th minute, but rather than shoot, he held on to the ball for too long, and allowed the goal-keeper time to cover the angle. In the 14th minute, a nice bout of passing saw Sameer Dad in possession inside the Polish circle, but the shot, again, went off the mark. Those two chances, though, were the sum total of India's aggression in the first half.

Someone seems to have given the Indians a bit of a wakeup call during the breather, for in the second half, they dazzled. In patches, yes; mostly in the midfield, yes -- but there was still skill, purpose, and direction, three qualities totally lacking in the first half.

Starting with the seventh minute of the second half when Gagan Ajit Singh made an unexpected run down the right and took a healthy crack at goal only for the Polish goalie to bring off a fortuitous save, the Indians time and again burst through, taking 8 more cracks at goal, some of them the culmination of brilliant bouts of passing. But that old failing of being unable to finish -- more accurately, of hanging on to the ball for those vital seconds as the attacker tried to go even further forward and make absolutely sure -- saw their tries come to grief, against an adroit defence and a goal-keeper on top of his game.

In this half, the most exasperating (for an Indian, that is) came after Dhanraj, getting the ball deep within his own half, launched into a spectacular run. Joined halfway through by Mukesh, the two then gave an exhibition of controlled short-passing while going at sprint speed, until a lovely forward push by Dhanraj put Mukesh in possession, on the right of the Polish D. Dhanraj himself raced in on the left. Meanwhile Mukesh, taking aim, cracked the ball with clinical possession onto Dhanraj's bottom, with the goalie out of position and a good part of the Polish goal empty and waiting.

The constant wave of attacks -- Poland in this phase knew what the ball looked like only through hearsay -- finally bore fruit when India forced three penalty corners in rapid succession. Off the third, the push came to Ramandeep at the top of the D, his shot rebounded to Dhanraj who, quick as a flash, pushed square to the unmarked Dilip Tirkey. With a clear, unobstructed view of the goal, Tirkey slammed in before the goalkeeper, who was covering Dhanraj's angle, could recover.

With just over 17 minutes to play, India needed to keep the momentum going. Falling back on defense could have been dangerous against a side that, in the last fifteen minutes of play in an earlier match, had blasted in three goals against Argentina. India in fact did play well, continuing to make fine moves into the rival territory -- but then, Mukesh capped a bad match with a needless, and blatant, foul that saw him being sent off.

Reduced to ten men, India panicked and fell back in defence. Which allowed the Poles plenty of room, in midfield, to launch massed waves of attacks on the Indian zone. India's strong point of late has not been its defence -- a goal, thus, was inevitable. And inevitably, it came off a defensive lapse. A Polish attacker ran down the left, cut across towards the Indian D, then took a flat, hard crack across the goal-mouth. Ramandeep, oblivious to the fact that Tomas Cichy had run in behind his back, made a casual attempt to stop, the ball hit his stick and richocheted straight to Cichy, who slammed home off an acute angle from the right.

That goal came in the 69th minute. In what remained of play, Dhanraj ran like a man possessed, twice taking hard cracks at goal, only to be foiled, both times, by the Polish goalie.

When the whistle went, the scoreboard was level. And India's record of never managing to get into the semifinal since its title triumph in Moscow in 1980 remained intact.

At the end, you had to think that if India had shown in the first session the fire it displayed in the second (besides the 8 field tries, India also forced 7 penalty corners in the second half, to none in the first); if Indian forwards had learnt their lessons and shot, where they preferred to dribble; if the weaknesses in defence had been spotted, and corrected; if...

The story of Indian hockey in the last twenty years is condensed in that one word. If.

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