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 February 28, 2002 | 1300 IST

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Former India players lament poor showing

The fat lady has begun to sing, and it is no music to Indian ears.

Indian team coach Cedric D'Souza had remarked after the defeat to Korea on Tuesday that his side had a chance to qualify for the semi-finals from the pool "until the fat lady sings".

And, by the looks of it, after the upset loss to Malaysia last night, it would need more than a "divine intervention" (again, to quote the coach), to keep the Indian team afloat in the ongoing 10th men's hockey World Cup.

With two defeats and a draw from three matches, and just four more games in hand (against England, Cuba, Poland and Australia), India seem destined to be left fighting for the mid-rung positions (5-8) at best.

The worst case scenario, if the team does not pick itself up from these morale-shattering defeats, would be a repeat of the 1986 Willesden World Cup, when Indian fortunes snowballed and eventually the team finished 12th and last.

The many former India players and Olympians present in Kuala Lumpur were at a loss for words to explain the team's poor performance in the ongoing World Cup.

Most agreed that the players should be freed from the shackles of "European style" of hockey and be allowed to play their "natural game". But the point is, there is no remedy for the notorious inconsistency of Indian teams from time immemorial.

D'Souza had said before the start of the tournament: "We have done everything possible to ready the players for the World Cup. All their needs have been met, and now it is up to the players to go out and perform."

Two former India captains, Ajit Pal Singh, who led the team when India won the cup in 1975, and Vasudevan Bhaskaran, the coach of the 1998 World Cup team, found flaws in the team's preparations. They pointed out that in the lead-up to the World Cup, the team was not exposed to any of the top six sides in the world, and as such, the inherent weaknesses and challenge from a weak field or the junior World Cup, does not mean we will do well in the senior World Cup.

"You got to play against the top teams to know where you stand," averred Bhaskaran.

Echoing these views were the likes of M M Somaya, Jagbir Singh and Ashish Ballal, all top-notch International stars in their salad days. There was also unanimity in opinion that the Indians should stick to "attacking style" of hockey that in the past had earned the country the sobriquet of "kings of hockey".

Justifying this line thought, they felt that since Indian players, or for that matter those from Asia, are basically "instinctive" in their approach to the game, they can be trained only so much.

Pakistan is being held as a shining example of "classical hockey" with their free-flowing, attacking game, marked by extensive use of the wingers to stretch the rival defense. The difference between the Indian and Pakistani teams in Kuala Lumpur, is that the former is without a playmaker in the mould of a Shahbaz Ahmed.

Somebody like Mohammad Riaz, who until recently was the fulcrum of the Indian team, with his vision and ball distribution, would have lent weight to the Indian midfield, according to the abovementioned former India players.

Apart from the loose Indian midfield, the under-utilisation of Dhanraj Pillay, one of the world's best strikers, and a weak defense, were the other factors that contributed to the Indian downfall in the ongoing tournament.

"Pillay, I think, is being wasted on the wings, when he should have been playing in the centre, where he is most effective. He is the sort of player who loves to be in the thick of things," pointed out Bhaskaran.

The much-hyped Jugraj Singh, manning the crucial link position, has been thoroughly exposed in terms of his inability to tackle or distribute. He tops the list of Indian players with the most mispasses.

In deep defense, both Lazarus Barla and Dilip Tirkey have not shown the best of form and with only inexperienced players to back them up, the Indian defense has worn a ragged look.

Also, the denial of at least three legitimate goals in the matches so far, and Baljit Singh Dhillon's missed penalty-stroke against Malaysia last night, have left the Indian team down in the dumps.

Sadly, at the moment, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

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