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Mervyn Fernandis

Pillay, Dhillon hold the key

August 14, 2004

In barely 24 hours the Indian hockey team plays its first league match of the 28th Olympiad at Athens, against favourites and defending gold medallists The Netherlands. I personally feel that because of very high expectations back home the team has always played under tremendous pressure in its first outing at past Games. That's because clearing the first hurdle gives the players a psychological boost and eases the tension in the matches that follow.

Sunday's match against the Dutch could follow on the same lines as few, including yours truly, are giving the eight-time Olympic champions much of a chance against the men in orange, who are hoping to become the first team to win three successive Olympic golds.

The skepticism comes following the Indian team's poor pre-Olympic match results and the sacking of coach Rajinder Singh.

Talking about pressure, some of the youngsters in the Indian side, like goalkeeper Adrian D'Souza, defenders William Xalco and Sandeep Singh, are bound to be overawed by the enormity event and it will all depend how quickly they shrug it all off and justify the faith imposed in them by the selection committee, which dropped seasoned players Kanwalpreet Singh (full back) and Bimal Lakra (midfield).

The Indian defence and goalkeeper are likely to be kept very busy, particularly from penalty-corners. The Dutch have one of the world's best drag flickers in Taeke Taekama and they will be looking to force as many short corners as possible to take advantage of the new rule which favours the drag flicker. It is possible that we may have a flurry of goals in the match.

India too have a good drag flicker in young Sandeep Singh, but his inexperience at the senior level could prove his undoing. Then there is also Baljit Dhillon, who is likely to be used for the penalty-corner exercise, but he lacks consistency.

It will be interesting to see the tactics India's newly-appointed coach Gerhard Rach employs. His comments during the past few days indicate that he is looking to concede as less penalty-corners as possible to blunt the main scoring weapon of the Dutchmen.

Field play is another area the Indians will have to be sharpen. The overlapping of the Dutch midfielders has been one of the team's main strengths and the Indian midfield will have to deny them space to manoeuvre. In fact, much will depend on how the Indian midfield performs. Veterans Dhanraj Pillay and Baljit Singh Dhillon have a key role to play in that department, which in recent matches been the weak link in the Indian side. If they can strike up a good understanding with the forwardline, it will easy the pressure on the defence.

Both Pillay and Dhillon have the experience and skills to open up any defence. They will have to break the shackles of man-to-man marking by the Dutch and find the spaces to feed the trio of Prabhjot Singh, Gagan Ajit and Deepak Thakur. All three forwards are very quick in the circle and are our trump cards. If used effectively they can produce the desired results.

It is learnt that the weather conditions are not too favorable for the Europeans as the temperatures are pretty high and so is the humidity. Playing under floodlights too will be energy sapping. The Indians must take advantage of the conditions and unsettle their opponents.

At the 1996 Olympics, India lost its opening match to Argentina and ended up finishing eight, their worst ever placing at an Olympics. At Sydney in 2000, they did beat the same South American opponents in the opener but still ended up finishing down the ladder in seventh position.

What does Athens 2004 hold in store? Part of that answer could like in Sunday's match. Victory over The Netherlands will not only give the Indians a shot in the arm but also ease the pressure in the ensuing matches against Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina, the other team in the group.

Check the hockey schedule

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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.

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