| Gagan Ajit has the attributes of becoming a great player
India reaped a rich harvest at the Afro-Asian Games, finishing only behind China in the medalsí tally. However exciting that may sound, we must not forget it was possible because most of the heavyweights took these Games casually. They didnít bother to enter teams in some disciplines, while in others, they fielded second-string players. Hockey was an exception. Heavyweights from both continents vied for glory and even though some big names were missing, competition was not at a premium.
The gold won by Rajinder Singhís team is, in fact, a big shot in the arm for hockey in our country. Having stood on the winnersí podium at the Asia Cup in Kuala Lumpur just about a month ago, this back-to-back triumph will help the process of hockeyís revival gain further momentum. There have been occasions in the past two decades when the game seemed to be on the verge of the big breakthrough but potential never got translated into results.
Rajinderís men seem to have realised that the only way to come to the forefront is by winning more and more matches, and tournaments. And thatís why the Indian players deserve all the kudos they are getting. It was really heart-warming to see them beating Pakistan twice in the same tournament. That too, in front of packed galleries.
Pakistan dominated India in the first half of the final, but the hosts did well to turn it around and, in the end, win convincingly. Even in the semi-final, we struggled to put the ball into the Malaysian net but the boys hung on and ultimately won via the tie-breaker. Itís this never-say-die spirit which should stand this team in good stead.
Dhanraj Pillay, Baljit Dhillon and Baljit Saini were rested by the Indian Hockey Federation for this tournament. I whole-heartedly support this policy because I believe that unless you are prepared to experiment, the future will be bleak. Trying out the bench-strength as frequently as possible not only boosts the confidence of fringe players, it also keeps senior and established players on their toes.
Absolutely nobody should take his place for granted and the Pillays, Dhillons and Sainis must know they have to fight their way back into the team. You need competition to bring the best out of every player.
Thereís another positive side to experimentation: it can unearth players who, otherwise, may have faded into oblivion after warming the benches for a series of tournaments. Harpal Singh, for example, gave a good account of himself when he got the chance. The young full-back charged out well while defending penalty corners and headed straight towards the man taking the hit ó an art Jugraj Singh had mastered.
Among the other non-regulars on view in Hyderabad, Arjun Halappa operated at a fast pace down the right flank. We could be needing someone like him because most of our attack is left-oriented with the trio of Prabhjot Singh, Deepak Thakur and Gagan Ajit Singh forming an effective combination.
I was happy to see Dilip Tirkey, who led the team in Pillayís absence, playing solid hockey in defence. He is gradually regaining peak form which he was on the verge of losing earlier this year, and that really augurs well for the Indian team.
Another standout performer was Devesh Chauhan. This well-built man always had the qualities to be a top-class goalkeeper, but his problem was inconsistency. He would effect two fine saves and then let in a soft goal. In Hyderabad, Chauhan maintained a rich vein of form right through the tournament. Both in the semi-final and final, it was his brilliance which saved India.
Then how can one ignore Gagan Ajitís contribution' He has made it a habit of scoring fabulous goals against Pakistan. Thatís the hallmark of a great player ó he rises with the level of competition and produces the goods in crunch situations. Heís not a forward with great individual skills but a very good scorer. Previously, he had this penchant for pulling the ball to his left and scoring with reverse-flicks. In the Afro-Asian final, it was good to see him score from his right side as well.
The other good quality Gagan Ajit possesses is a very cool head. The Pakistanis always try to upset him, but Gagan Ajit doesnít get flustered.
As far as the Indians are concerned, the year is closing on as high a note as it had begun. But we canít afford to rest on our laurels, especially as an Olympic year is knocking on the doors. Though nothing can be taken for granted, I would be very surprised if we fail to book our ticket to Athens.
I have one simple piece of advice for the team management: just continue the process of experimentation in the forthcoming ĎTestí series against the Dutch, then the Azlan Shah meet and Olympic qualifiers in Spain. Thatís the best way to prepare for Athens.