The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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India look to sail past first hurdle

Busan: It was in Bangkok 1998 that India reclaimed the Asian Games hockey gold after a gap of 32 years. Many moons have passed since and much water has flown down the Ganges, yet one thing hasn’t changed. And that is, the Indian hockey team remains as unpredictable as ever.

Dhanraj Pillay & Co. launch their bid to retain the precious metal in a buoyant mood, coming off a decent Champions Trophy campaign in Cologne. Victories over Australia and Pakistan, following a draw with The Netherlands have given new hope to a team playing some of its best hockey in recent times.

At the back of their mind, however, are two results which could have a bearing on the competition here. A 2-4 loss to South Korea in their last league match and a 3-4 defeat against Pakistan in the bronze-deciding duel — after being 3-1 up till five minutes before full time — couldn’t have come at a worse time in the context of the Asian Games.

The Koreans and Pakistanis are the other continental powerhouses and will again be the toughest adversaries in India’s march to glory. The hosts have been clubbed with India in pool A, so a meeting before the final is ruled out. But another reversal against the sturdy Koreans will almost certainly push India to a semi-final showdown with Pakistan and that is always a 50-50 game.

Pillay, of course, is not looking so far ahead. “Let’s cross the first hurdle, then we’ll think of the semi-final and final.” he quipped after practice this afternoon.

The first ‘hurdle’, at the Gangseo Hockey Stadium Monday morning, is Hong Kong. Going by pedigree and past results, that’s not a real hurdle. Not only have India won all their past five Games meetings with Hong Kong, they have scored a whopping 41 goals without conceding one.

“Every game is a new one, there’s no easy match these days,” said coach Rajinder Singh. “Yes, we have got a good team and some very talented players, but the talent has to be utilised properly.”

There are lessons India want to learn from their Champions Trophy experience. “We conceded far too many penalty corners, that should be stopped. We worked hard at the camp to make sure we defend well against the rivals’ forays and counter-attacks,” said Pillay.

The temperamental genius, still a big headache for any defence as he showed in Cologne where he was named Player of the Tournament, was in the news for the wrong reasons of late. India lost to Pakistan in the bronze match in Cologne because the junior players didn’t provide him with enough balls, Pillay was quoted as saying. “Don’t ask me anything controversial,” he snapped when asked whether there is a senior-junior rift in the team.

Gagan Ajit Singh, a livewire in the forwardline who will be playing his 101st international Monday, gave a clean chit to Pillay. “His quotes were twisted, he didn’t criticise any junior player. There’s no problem in the team and everyone gets along well with Dhanraj,” said Gagan Ajit.

That better be true. If there are strains, it may not matter against opposition like Hong Kong but against the heavyweights, India need to go in firing on all cylinders.

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