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 March 6, 2002 | 1700 IST

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India looking to reign over Spain

India once again find themselves playing for positions just above the basement level at the 10th men's hockey World Cup in Kuala Lumpur

After finishing sixth in Pool B, they take on Spain, fifth in Pool A, in a classification match for the 9th to 12th positions on Thursday.

India were similarly placed at the 1998 World Cup in Utrecht, where they finished ninth.

For Spain, however, it's been quite a slide from the last World Cup, where they had finished runners-up to the Netherlands.

Despite the pre-event media hype, the Indians failed to perform to potential or expectations. They conceded early goals in their first four games, losing three (to Korea, Malaysia and England) and drawing one (with Japan), before they picked themselves up and posted victories over lowly Cuba and Poland, and ended their pool engagements with a defeat against Australia.

The only match in which the Indians looked anywhere near impressive was, ironically, in the last match against Australia, where they went down 3-4.

Adding to their cup of woes was the highly unsavoury incident of the sacking of chief coach Cedric D'Souza after the loss to England. Though for a moment the players felt orphaned, when D'Souza, along with one of the assistant coaches and the team doctor, left for home, the team kept its collective composure to perform well enough and attract some positive attention.

Under C K Kumar, who took charge of the team after D'Souza's exit, India played in a style that the players are more familiar with. They were on the attack from the start in search of early goals, and it paid rich dividends against Cuba and Poland. Even the Aussies felt threatened by the team's open play.

However, all this newfound fire and brimstone, surfaced rather late in the tournament, leaving the Indians looking like novices that they certainly are not.

In a brief chat with UNI on Wednesday, Kumar said, "The boys are fine and we are looking forward to playing Spain; our performance against the Aussies has boosted our confidence."

Spain will be no pushovers, and the Indians are only too well aware of it. The least they can hope for is at least to maintain their Utrecht position of ninth. Curiously, the Indians were seeded 14th for the current World Cup on the basis of their recent performances, that, incidentally, included qualifying for the elite Champions Trophy, which is contested only by the top six ranked teams in the world.

India's major concern in the current World Cup has been the poor form of their first choice goalkeeper Jude Menezes, who let in some silly goals that cost the team dear. His substitute, Devesh Chauhan, performed far better, especially against the Aussies, bringing off at least four good saves.

Under the circumstances, the Indian defence has not given any cause for inspiration while in the midfield, the linkmen, with their tendency to hang on to the ball instead of a quick release, has often led to premature breakdown of moves. Up front, the forwards continued to miss chances, and the penalty-corner exercises have been rather confusing and disjointed.

Some quarters believe rather optimistically that the current team, packed with juniors, can be groomed into a world-beating side. But then, the same was said four years ago, and also back in mid-1990s when India had a well-knit side. The results, however, have not been forthcoming, which, in effect, is the tale of India's performance in the 10th World Cup.

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