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 March 13, 2002 | 1600 IST

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Top finishers a class apart

M M Somaya

M M Somaya It needed no crystal ball to predict the top three finishers even before a single whistle was blown at the hockey World Cup 2002.

Playing well is the domain of many. Playing well when it really matters is the domain of but a few. Germany, Australia and the Netherlands emphasised this once again at Kuala Lumpur and deservedly captured the top three positions.

Two decades has seen hockey transform and evolve into a completely different ball game but the top echelon has remained unchanged. There have been few better examples of ruthless professionalism and unflinching work ethic.

At Kuala Lumpur the threat did persist. Asian giants Korea and Pakistan, till the very end, appeared most likely to succeed in their bid to dislodge the top three. But when in a corner, the big three were able to pull out that extra bit of pace, a tucked away ploy and, of course, the killer punch.

Korea came closest to causing a major upset when they fought toe-to-toe with Germany in the semi-finals, and later let the Netherlands off the hook after having them on the ropes for most part of the bronze medal clash.

Deprived of a bronze by a last gasp equaliser and a golden goal, Korea showed signs of establishing a permanent place in the top echelons of world hockey.

Shahbaz Ahmed Pakistan rode on the guile of the mercurial Shahbaz Ahmed, a ferocious half-line and some scorching penalty-corner conversions. In the face of some controversial umpiring decisions at critical times in the game against Germany, both teams maintained their composure on the field though there remained a residue and an unfortunate suspicion of bias.

A few matches in World Cup 2002 would stay etched in memory. The pool match between Germany and the Netherlands, which witnessed breathtaking pace, both teams running at each other for the entire duration of the game and displaying skills of sublime variety.

The semi-final between Australia and the Netherlands also set up rip-roaring stuff, the Netherlands finding the typically open hockey of Australia, as well as the weather, too hot to handle.

Both matches epitomised the game as it exists in its present avatar -- quick ball-rotation in defence, lightning shift from defence into attack and dribbling skills at maximum speed. The propensity to strike at goal from any angle once inside the circle was also in evidence.

The final match too saw an exciting display of speed -- Germany keeping their best for the end, outmanoeuvering Australia in the second half.

The 'no off-side' rule was introduced five years ago to facilitate better flow and a glut of goals. Whether the end objective has been met remains a matter of debate, but this rule has certainly influenced the tactical outlook of teams.

It has in fact encouraged an overcautious approach and teams invariably push as many players as possible behind the ball in defence. A defensive wall in front of the circle, reminiscent of soccer, makes the entry into the circle by dribbling extremely difficult.

Artistic build-up through stick skills and short passes have therefore made way for long, sharp hits into the circle searching for a deflection.

From inside the circle too, the strike across the face of the goal to the far post and out of the reach of the goalkeeper for a colleague to deflect home has become a very effective route to a goal.

The World Cup winner for Germany also came off such a move, with Oliver Domke sliding in to slot home. The grace and languid elegance of the weaving dribble was only fleetingly visible from players like Shahbaz, certainly a loss for hockey.

Australia's Troy Elder, the Player of the Tournament, had some stiff competition from some other outstanding performers, and his team mate Brent Livermore was just as outstanding in the central mid-fielder's role.

Top scorer Jorge Lombi of Argentina proved that age has not dulled his flair as was the case with the exceptionally gifted Shahbaz Ahmed, whose periodic bursts of stickwork kept Pakistan in contention and gave the crowd great thrill.

Tien De Nooijer, the attacking mid-fielder from the Netherlands, was just as pleasing and bore a lot of the workload for his team.

Jamie Dwyer, the young forward from Australia, impressed with his dash and ability to strike at goal. Wasim Ahmed, the diminutive left-half of Pakistan has matured into an attacking left-half and displayed poise even in tense situations.

For leadership and field presence, Florian Kunz stood tall in Germany's deep defence though he may not have been outstanding at all times.

In goal, Australia's Lachlan Dreher and Pakistan's Muhammad Qasim were the pick of the lot.

Dhanraj Pillay Baljit Dhillon and Dhanraj Pillay could have fallen into the outstanding bracket with better support from their team mates.

It was, however, good to see the younger players of the Indian team, sponsored by Castrol, come good towards the end of the tournament.

Hosts Malaysia need special kudos for superb organisation of the gruelling 72-match tournament. The nine matches that each team played in the 14-day tournament qualifies as hockey's most gruelling test.

FIH President Elsvan Breda Vriesman's announcement of reverting to the old 12-team format emanated from the harsh experiences of both players and organisers and was met with great relief.

The host team also managed a creditable eighth position finish and kept the crowd always interested. There could be no better ambience than an appreciative and disciplined crowd and this was a feature of Kuala Lumpur 2002.

In a game where training technology is reaching unbelievable levels, analysis and strategy have progressed remarkably.

Coaches Bernhard Peters of Germany, Barry Dancer of Australia and Paul Lissek, the coach of Malaysia, impressed with the handling of their teams. India will have to make a paradigm shift in this area if they have to seriously offer a challenge.

Germany emerged deserving winners of World Cup 2002 as were the other medal winners Australia and the Netherlands. They have adapted continually to changes in hockey, always staying a step ahead.

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

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