| Dhanraj Pillay will have to shrug off his poor form and lead from the front
Kuala Lumpur, Sept. 27 (PTI): Four-time finalists India are looking to win their first Asia Cup when they take on arch-rivals and three-time champions Pakistan at the National Hockey Stadium here on Sunday.
India have made four of the last five finals whereas Pakistan were winners in 1982, 1985 and 1989. Pakistan won the inaugural edition after beating India 4-0 in the group matches.
India lost to Pakistan in 1985 and 1989 and in the 1994 tournament, they went down to South Korea. Sunday will mark Pakistan’s fifth appearance in an Asia Cup final — in 1999 they lost 5-4 to South Korea in a closely-contested game.
Pakistan hold a slight edge on Sunday, having won a preliminary round match between the two sides on Wednesday 4-2. But India has promised to put up a good fight.
“We have analysed the match and rest assured we will not repeat the mistakes we made in the first match,” India coach Rajinder Singh said.
“On that day our forwards squandered many goal-scoring chances but they made up for it with a solid performance against the Koreans in the semi-final. If we can convert the chances, then there is a great chance we can end our barren run in this tournament.”
Pakistan’s Rehan Butt said his team was buoyed up at the prospect of meeting India in the final and of beating them en route to the title and a berth in the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
“A win over India would cap a dream Asia Cup outing for us,” he said. “Although we beat them in the league match, the final would be totally different... It would have an entirely different tempo. The team which can control its nerves and does not get carried away will be the winner as both sides are equally matched.”
Veteran short corner expert Sohail Abbas would be the biggest thorn for India as he makes little mistakes with his drag flick and has been in top form in the tournament alongwith Kashif Jawaad and captain Nadeem Ahmed.
Sohail agreed the pressure would be on him to deliver. “But that is what playing at the top international level is all about. I can be called successful only if I can withstand that pressure and live up the expectations of my countrymen.”
Similar responsibility would have to be shouldered by India captain Dhanraj Pillay. The dribble expert would have to lead from the front and motivate the younger players. The forwards — Gagan Ajit Singh and Prabhjot Singh especially — have been trying to build a rhythm and they must be looking up to the captain, who has not been all that outstanding here, for inspiration.
Forward Baljit Singh Saini epitomised the feelings of his teammates saying, “we know we can do it and we will beat Pakistan hands down.”
The sledging factor
The final, like any other game involving the staunch rivals, will see a fair bit of sledging which is not limited to cricket alone. Sohail revealed this aspect of the game and said his team often resorted to sledging to unsettle the Indians.
“When we have the upperhand in the game, we try to unsettle the Indians by verbal sparring. Sledging is a part of modern hockey though not many people may know about it,” Sohail said here on Saturday.
With India and Pakistan matches invariably being high-voltage affairs, even a minor lapse in concentration could become the difference between national pride and humiliation and Sohail said this was the reason why both teams try to play on on each other’s minds.
“We know which players are volatile in the Indian team — Gagan Ajit, Prabhjot and Jugraj Singh — and target them for sledging. They also know that in our team Saqlain Mohammed, goalkeeper Ahmed Alam and Ali Raza are hot tempered and get worked up easily,” the 24-year-old player said.