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 March 6, 2002 | 1530 IST

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Last few performances offer glimmer
of hope for the future

M M Somaya

M M SomayaPlaying pool toppers Australia in their concluding league fixture, the Indian team, sponsored by Castrol, appeared to have exorcised the demons that plagued them in the earlier part of the tournament.

India traded pace for pace and move for move with the fancied Aussies in a furiously fast match. The ultimate 4-3 score line in favour of Australia is an indication of the closeness of the contest and fluent open hockey that was on view.

India had decided to play aggressive hockey right from the start. The half-line for the first time in the tournament played on the heels of the forwards, distributing passes intelligently and giving Dhanraj Pillay, Baljit Dhillon and Prabhjot Singh up front something to chew up on.

Baljit Saini and Thirumalvalvan were the pick of the half-backs, with Ignace Tirkey gradually establishing himself as permanent left-half for the team.

Saini, in particular, has been outstanding in the past few matches. Against Poland, two of his promptings had got goals and he followed this up with another encouraging performance against Australia.

The other noteworthy performance came from Devesh Chauhan in goal. Pushed into the deep end with regular Jude Menezes suffering sudden loss in form, the youngster earned his spurs with another commendable display.

Chauhan exhibited excellent anticipation and reflexes while effecting six saves that kept India in the game. Jugraj Singh's inclusion in his regular full-back role also was a good move and he responded well by opening the scoring off a super penalty-corner drag flick.

The second goal for India was a delectable effort, Pillay screaming down the right and coming in along the touchline to set up the play for Daljit Dhillon, who swept home.

The Australian moves too were of exceptional quality and they launched counter attacks at an unbelievable pace. On one occasion they needed just two touches to get out of defence and take a try at the Indian goal!

The try, a diving reverse stick by Jeremy Hiskins getting past a sliding Chauhan but trickling past the left post by the narrowest of margins.

Another beauty was the penalty corner-conversion by the Australians for their fourth and final goal. The ball slipped to the left side for Matthew Smith to flick home in one sweeping action. The precision of execution had even the in-form Chauhan in goal foxed.

Post introduction of the no off-side rule, the commonly used tactic has been the searing hit into the circle to enable the fine touch from a poaching colleague. Australia seem to be the most adept at this and Chauhan had to be extremely alert to keep the ball in sight through a jungle of legs. Two saves off Craig Victory matching the exquisiteness of the efforts.

India's performance in the prior match too, against Poland, was heartening and the 4-1 victory gave some consolation although it may not have wiped away the memory of the heartbreaking draw at the Sydney Olympics that denied India a semi-final berth.

Settling into a controlled pace the Indians never let the Poles get into the match and the confidence was reassuring.

With hopes of a semi-final berth squashed, India have seen the pressure ease over the last three games. Against Cuba, Poland and Australia they have appeared to be in sync and at last somewhat worthy of their pre-tournament rating.

Elevated coach C R Kumar should be given a lot of the credit for ensuring that the team kept its bearings during trying times. Tactically, too, he acquitted himself rather well.

His choice of starting line players and their careful substitutions have ensured steadiness in performance. These last few Indian performances have left that little glimmer of hope for the future though playing for rankings nine to twelve at this World Cup would be rather discomforting.

M M Somaya was a member of the Indian hockey team at the Olympics of 1980, '84 and '88.

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