Can India recapture
1975 hockey glory?
The only way to describe it is as a triumph of hope over experience.
India finished 8th in the hockey competition in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics -- the lowest ever, by a team that in its glory days had won eight Olympic golds. And in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, we did only marginally better, finishing 7th. What is more, it is now 27 years since our sole World Cup triumph, way back in 1975.
And yet, as the team prepares for the latest edition of the World Cup, the bitterness of recent defeats is forgotten, and hope triumphs -- the hope that this 10th edition of the World Cup, scheduled to be held between February 24-March 9, will see India make a bid to recapture past glory.
For once, however, this hope is not a castle in the clouds, but rather, is grounded on the firm fact of major successes in 2001 -- first in the Junior World Cup, then in the Champions’ Challenge.
The World Cup this year is being held in Kuala Lumpur -- interestingly, the venue where Ajit Pal Singh led India to its sole triumph in the competition. Is this, taken in tandem with the recent successes, an omen of things to come?
Don’t you believe it! The Champions’ Challenge -- our biggest win in recent times -- featured Malaysia, South Africa, Japan, Belgium and Argentina. More to the point, none of the leading teams -- Holland, Germany, Australia, Pakistan and Korea -- participated.
Obviously, the sheen of the Champions Challenge triumph is somewhat diminished when you consider the quality of the opposition. It is devalued even further when you remember that even against less than top-notch opponents, the Indian team -- which comprised pretty much the same line-up as the one picked to do duty in the World Cup -- struggled.
In the preliminary league, India squeezed past Belgium 1-0, drew with South Africa 2-2, and then lost 1-2 to Malaysia. It was only a brilliant display by goalkeeper Jude Menezes that helped India beat Argentina 2-1 in the concluding league match, before defeating South Africa 2-1 in the final.
Thus, the Champions' Challenge triumph, which infused fresh hope in disillusioned fans, cannot realistically become the basis for any real analysis of India’s chances in the upcoming tournament.
Against this, teams such as Pakistan, Holland, Korea and Germany have been in scintillating form in recent times. In fact, all four of those teams played in a six-nation tournament in Kuala Lumpur last month. Pakistan won that tournament and, judging by its display, should be overwhelming favourites to lift the World Cup.
Obviously, therefore, India will not go into this tournament as favourites. Not even close. But neither can this team be considered the obvious contenders for the wooden spoon.
Interestingly, rather than celebrate the Champions' Challenge triumph, coach Cedric D’Souza put the team on what he called a "rectifying mission" -- to wit, a hard, no-nonsense camp in Chennai’s astro-turf stadium, aimed at rectifying the mistakes spotted in course of that tournament.
The focus has been on eliminating India's single biggest weakness down the years, namely an inability to score from penalty-corners, and from opportunities created inside the circle.
The team has also been strengthened with the return, from injury layoffs, of Dilip Tirkey and Baljit Singh Saini, both of who were missing from the Champions’ Challenge squad. Tirkey's comeback provides solidity to the defence while Saini, a glutton for hard work, has the midfield experience to provide the crucial link between the defence and the forwards.
Again, the forward line is bolstered by the return of the versatile Dhanraj Pillay. His presence upfront will infuse that element of confidence into the other forwards, most notably Deepak Thakur and Prabhjot Singh, who were the architects of India’s Junior World Cup win. If Dhanraj, playing in his fourth World Cup, can strike the right striking rhythms with Thakur, Prabhjot, skipper Baljit Dhillon and the wily Sabu Varkey, scoring will be the least of India’s problems.
The draw, on paper, favours India. Pool A is the stronger of the two pools, with defending champions the Netherlands, Argentina, Belgium, Germany, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa and Spain. Along with India in Pool B are Australia, England, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Poland and Cuba.
Though none of the 16 teams can be considered easy pickings, India's toughest opposition in its pool should be Australia and Korea. If the side can seal wins against the five lesser sides, and snatch a win over either Australia or Korea, then a semifinal berth is assured.
In the last edition of the World Cup, held in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in 1998, India only managed to place 9th out of 12 teams. Coach Cedric D’Souza will obviously be aiming to better that performance manifold this time.
When D’Souza took over as coach, for the second time, in January 2001, he categorically told the Indian Hockey Federation, and the sports ministry, not to expect any miracles.
At the time, he listed his goals as three in number: First, to get the team to qualify for the World Cup; secondly to win the Champions’ Challenge and thus make it to the lineup for the Champions’ Trophy, and three, to win a medal at the World Cup.
Interestingly, he has already achieved the first two stated objectives. Will he -- and his team -- make it a hat-trick?