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Athens a long way off: Rajinder

New Delhi: Attributing India’s fine performance in the three-nation invitational hockey tournament in Australia to “team-work”, chief coach Rajinder Singh said on Tuesday that his goal would be to carry forward the good work to next year’s Olympics in Athens.

“Our showing in Australia is no doubt a big morale booster. But our primary aim is the Athens Olympics and we have still a long way to go,” Rajinder said as the Indian team returned to a rousing reception here.

India finished runners-up to Australia in the first leg in Perth but won the second in Sydney.

Rajinder said India’s fine show was possible due to induction of several members of the junior World Cup- winning team.

“The juniors and seniors gelled well to form effective combinations. That helped our cause a lot,” he said. India were unlucky to lose the Perth final as Australia scored an “opportunistic” goal in the last minute to emerge 2-1 winners. However, a week later India settled scores, thrashing the hosts 5-3.

The Indian coach also said that his boys’ dominance over arch-rivals Pakistan had nothing to do with the absence of some senior players in that side. “They got only one penalty corner against us in Perth. What could Sohail Abbas have done there'

“They had come to play an international tournament and they came with their best team. Absence of one or two players hardly make any difference to any side.”

Short corner specialist Abbas was one of the three senior members of the Pakistan side to be dropped for the meet on disciplinary grounds. Former captain Mohammed Nadeem and Mohammed Wasim were the two others.

The coach said the 12-day tour also helped the side sort out some weaknesses.

“We have improved in short corner conversion and defending which had long been the side’s weakness.”

Rajinder said he would be holding meetings with Indian Hockey Federation president K.P.S. Gill and the selectors to prepare a team for the future since several members of the team may not continue after the Athens Olympics.

“There are some players who are at the fag end of their careers. At most they can play till the Olympics. But after that we have to look for new blood. He, however, lauded the efforts of Dhanraj Pillay, Baljit Singh Dhillon and Baljit Singh Saini.

“The senior players have a tremendous impact on the team. The return of Dhillon is a great boost to the side.”

However, spurred by the Australian success, Pillay indicated in Bangalore on Tuesday that he was looking to extend his international career by at least two to three years.

“Now, I feel I can easily play for the next two to three years,” said Pillay, who had in recent months hinted that he was close to taking a decision on retirement.

Pillay said the tournament in Australia had done wonders for him and he was feeling totally fit. He did not feel exhausted even once and gave credit to trainer Sampath Kumar who, he said, did a fine job.

“I was very fit. I did not feel that I was very senior. In fact, I was ahead of them by one or two steps and it gave me happiness that I was able to play alongside the juniors,” he said.

The Indian captain added that the team is now looking to break the Champions Trophy jinx. “The tournament in Australia was a good start and we will try to keep the tempo for the Champions Trophy in August.”

India have never won the prestigious Champions Trophy and last year too they had to be content with the fourth place. Their best ever show has been a third place finish. The mercurial striker said the team would assemble at Delhi on June 17 for a short camp before proceeding to Germany on June 21 to take part in the Panasonic Cup beginning June 27. The other two nations featuring in the tournament are Argentina and Spain.

The captain was all praise for young Sandeep Michael and said his goal against Pakistan was “one of the best” he had ever seen. It was hit from “zero angle” and he had seen only Mukesh Kumar produce such shots.

He expressed displeasure over the red card shown to Baljit Dhillon against Pakistan, saying it was the reason for India’s failure to beat its arch rival.

Pillay said the matter was resolved after the two captains had a talk and they decided to treat it as a non-issue.

“I don’t know why Dhillon got the red card. I don’t think he should have been given that,” he said. “After Dhillon was shown the red card, we could not keep our 3-1 lead and had to settle for a 4-4 draw.

Responding to a question, Pillay said India makes an extra effort whenever they face Pakistan. “When we play Pakistan, we play with full heart. We have to give 200 per cent.”

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