Pillay,the old warhorse is a pillar of strength
Once again, the hopes and aspirations of India’s hockey lovers and, in fact, the whole nation, are pinned on the Indian team for the next Champions Trophy to be held in The Netherlands from Saturday.
This will be the Silver Jubilee of the Champions Trophy, but it is really disheartening when we find that India have qualified only ten times, including this year.
Further, India’s record in the tournament has been dismal. We have never ever reached the final, the best being a third-place finish once. Other than that, we have finished fourth and fifth, three times each, and sixth twice.
Hopes rose high before the 2000 Sydney Olympics. India were expected to reach the semi-finals, at least. But a heart-breaking 1-1 draw with Poland — witnessed by Vece and Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupati and so many other Indian sportspersons — saw the hopes dashed.
With two minutes to go, India conceded a goal, and saw the chances of a possible Olympic medal after the 1980 Moscow Games disappear.
Now, under new coach Rajinder Singh, professing to play old Indian-style hockey, the team has won two back-to-back trophies in Australia and Germany. The main benefit for the team seems to be the confidence of being able to take on and beat any opposition in the world. The second is the heady, sweet taste of a tournament victory.
These wins have also benefited Indian hockey in general. For instance, the game has regained the limelight it enjoyed earlier and with this has come big sponsorship, in the form of Sahara India.
The Champions Trophy 2003 will be the real test of whether the team is capable of coping with nine days of gruelling top-class hockey. The team will be playing five pool matches in seven days, followed by the placement matches.
Besides India, world champions Germany, Olympic gold-medallists Holland, Australia, Pakistan and Argentina have qualified for this, the third best tournament after the Olympics and the World Cup. India’s record may be poor in this meet, but this year, with the excellent immediate past performance, I expect India to be among the meals.
Though Germany are fielding a second-string team, they are great fighters and cannot be taken lightly. Germany are giving top priority to the European championship which is the qualifying tournament for the Athens Olympics. This only highlights their strategy and preparation for the Olympics.
Our sub-continental neighbours, Pakistan, will also not be at full strength because of injuries. However, three of their players are back after serving suspensions. One of them, Sohail Abbas, is one of the best penalty corner specialists in the world.
Apart from the two teams discussed above, India’s main opponents will be the hosts, against whom we start our campaign. This will be a crucial match for India, as it may well determine the way the team plays in the subsequent matches.
Among the other teams, Australia have always been tough for India and Argentina will be hard to score against. In a tournament of this stature, each match is going to be crucial, and the team cannot afford to relax in even one.
Returning to team-talk, in Devesh Chauhan India have a reasonably good goalkeeper. He has gained in confidence and is doing a good job of defending the penalty corners. Former captain Dilip Tirkey has regained his old form and is more confident in tackling, and clearances. Kanwalpreet Singh is also an accomplished player.
However, much will depend on India’s half line/midfield. Because India have been playing with four half backs and four forwards, it is the half line that has to carry most of the burden. In modern hockey, like in football, the half line controls the game.
Baljit Saini, Jugraj Singh, Bimal Lakra, Ignatious Tirkey and Vikram Pillay will have to perform exceptionally well as the team will be depending on them for not only in defending but also spraying passes to their forwards.
Saini and Lakra should do well on the right. In the Indian scheme of things all attacks generate from the right flank, especially against the Germans and the Pakistanis.
Jugraj is good in the middle, but his main strength and value to the team is his penalty corner conversion abilities. But he will have to curb his over-enthusiastic habit of rough play, which has resulted in India conceding unnecessary penalty corners, that too in the dying minutes of a match.
In the forward line, India can boast of some of the cleverest and fastest spearheads in the world. Not only captain Dhanraj Pillay who is an old warhorse, even Gagan Ajit Singh, Prabhjot Singh, Baljit Singhh Dhillon and Deepak Thakur have become seasoned campaigners.
Dhanraj is still one of the best forwards. He can be more useful if the coach uses him judiciously, resting him at the proper time.
Gagan Ajit is in his prime and has been among the goals in the last three tournaments. He was adjudged Player of the Tournament in Germany.
Prabhjot is fit again and is quite a slippery customer on the left flank, but is guilty of holding on to the ball too long at times. He has to curb this habit and pass the ball at the first opportunity.
In my opinion, Baljit Dhillon is set to be the most feared and valuable of forwards. His game is modelled on the old Indian forwards. He has skill, dribbles well and has the scoring ability, the body swerve, which used to be the hallmark of the earlier Indian forwards.
I have seen in many tournaments that most defenders are scared of tackling him and go on back-tracking when he is in possession of the ball. But then, he too has a tendency of over doing the dribble and delaying the passes, which becomes the team’s undoing.
The return of Deepak Thakur is also good for the team and will give the coach a lot of options. From what I have seen in the last few tournaments, coach Rajinder is playing the 2-4-4 combination.
It is good that the team is playing an attacking game and should go on playing so. However, what can be worrying sometimes is that there is too much gap between the forwards and halfbacks. This can result in a quick counter-attack and goals may be conceded.
One more weakness is the drop in the team’s concentration level in the dying minutes of the game. We probably lost an opportunity of a medal in last year’s Champions Trophy when we conceded quite a few last-minute goals against Germany, Holland and Pakistan.
In the final analysis two factors are going to play crucial roles in India’s performance:
1. Conversion of penalty corners. At present, we have four penalty corner takers. With the hit we have Dilip Tirkey and Kanwalpreet and with the drag flick Jugraj and Baljit Dhillion. If our conversion rate remains as good as in the last few tournaments then we can hope for a good result.
2. The rate of conversion from field opportunities created by our forwards. This rate has been poor. It has been the bane of Indian hockey for decades. We have played classical hockey most of the time but the rate of conversion needs attention.
I am sure if we can improve on the above two factors, the results will definitely show.
A good showing at this Champions Trophy will not only help bring back and sustain the focus on Indian hockey, but also give the much-needed confidence to the team for next year’s Olympics at Athens.
More so, when most of the recent players have nothing to show except a win at the 1998 Asian Games. This is a golden opportunity for them to show the country that they are capable of not only doing well at the Champions Trophy but also at Athens.
Bon voyage and good luck to Rajinder, Dhanraj and the team.