THE ECG of Indian hockey is running flat. In the third week of May when the ninth edition of the World Cup kicks off in Utrecht, Holland, it looks like there will be no player or combination of players whose skills could pierce the air of futility and failure that’s enveloping the game.
Mercurial forward Dhanraj Pillai is aging and running on low octane, right-out Mukesh Kumar is still in his ’60s-style and patchy, Ashish Ballal, India’s best goalkeeper is not in the 31 probables and is sitting it out, reportedly, for not being made captain, A.B. Subbaiah, the next best is more a penalty stroke specialist than one who can last 70 minutes; halfs like Mohammed Riaz fluctuate from being brilliant to nondescript, and Baljit Singh Saini’s still recovering from a ball hit to his face.
And, of course, there’s simply no rattlesnake juice in what should be the team’s principal musculature and weaponry—the penalty corner specialist.
Says former skipper Pargat Singh: “Big tournaments like the World Cup depend a lot upon penalty corner conversion. Anil Aldrin, our principal hitter, strikes hard but he has no scoop. Dilip Tirkey is yet to gain confidence. His hits lack power. There’s no deception either. F. Bovelander could hit and scoop in the same action.” With the visit of the former Dutch penalty corner wizard, Bovelander, being postponed to before the Commonwealth Games, whatever tips that could have been passed onto Aldrin or Tirkey from the camp are no longer coming. Says Vineet Kumar, India’s penalty hit specialist from the 1984 Olympics: “The entire penalty corner process has to take place within 1.5 seconds. If the goalkeeper knows you only hit and can’t scoop, your chances go down. Even indirect hits, the variations, are successful only if you have a hard hitter who can keep the defenders in a double mind. With us, opposition defenders know that we prefer indirect hits so they are all over us the moment the ball is pushed.” Adds former star Mervyn Fernandes: “Surjit Singh, our former penalty hit specialist used to keep on banging in practice till there were blisters on his hand. That commitment is missing.”
Sandeep Mishra, editor of Inside Hockey, agrees. Says he: “Bovelander used to take 500-600 hits a day in practice. Our hitters find the task too boring. They go for water after 20 hits.” The result: In the recently concluded 8-nation hockey series with Pakistan, India earned 52 penalty corners. They converted five. A success rate of 9.5 per cent. Compare this with the plus 40 per cent of European teams. Says K. Arumu-gam, hockey statistician and author of Hockey Year Book Series: “Since 1994 in the 15 tournaments India has played they have earned 388 penalty corners but have converted just 52. In fact, now we have dipped below even our normal average of around 15 per cent.”
And the one player India had been developing for a long time for this position, Baljit Singh Dhillon, no longer curries favour with IHF president K.P.S. Gill because of his proximity to Pargat Singh, who’s anti-Gill, and finds himself outside the list of probables. With goals not coming from penalty corners, the pressure on the forward line for field goals is immense. Says another former penalty specialist, M.P. Singh: “Against Pakistan when Pillai injured himself for the last few matches and Mukesh was shut up, the team flopped.”
India won the silver, Oltmans shot forward Rajeev Mishra from four angles. Holland is in India’s group for the World Cup and rate Mishra highly. Says Pargat about Rajeev Mishra: “He has a unique game sense and works hard. But he hasn’t played much with the senior side.” India’s own preparations are a little in the doldrums. Says M.P. Singh: “We switched over to the European system with regard to short camps. But there players are given individual regimens and are checked upon each week. Here nobody has an individual regimen and we have also shortened the duration of camps where players could practise together at length. Also, most of the players come from places where there are no turfs and no balls.” Adds former coach Ajitpal Singh: “It was also not necessary for the team to go to Australia. It was tiring and their performance has made morale low.”
Experts, however, say that the combination of Pillai and Mishra could be potentially lethal because, with Pillai drawing two to three defenders towards him, a ball release could provide the space for Mishra to burst through, something he is very good at. However, he’s been out because of a knee injury. But if he is fit and makes it to Holland he’s certain to play as he is one of coach V. Baskaran’s favourites.
On Varkey and Saini will, however, fall the mantle of making the plays. Says Fern-andes: “Varkey’s the person making all the moves now.” The defence, will, however, be crucial to whatever slim chances India have of making it to the semi-finals. Says Pargat: “Lazarus Barla and (Dilip) Tirkey hold the key. If they can be rock solid in the back and defend penalty corners well, we might be in with a chance.” While Barla is just 19 years old, Tirkey, 21, was declared player of the tournament in the recent Indo-Pak series. His only weak areas are the hits. Tirkey, who learnt his skills of intercepting forwards from Pargat Singh, has a good vision of the field and can feed Pillai with long shots from the back.
Tirkey’s scored only 5 goals in 66 matches. He just doesn’t have the power. With this World Cup being the last where penalty corner specialists can come in to take hits under the rolling substitution rule, Aldrin is likely to play that role for India. Says Pargat: “But we have to utilise the rolling substitution rule well to have a chance. After 15 minutes, tiring players must be given five minute rests. You’ve to use your entire 16 players.” However, the left wing is still a grey area. Says selector Zafar Iqbal: “We can’t fly on just one wing.” Samir Dad and Harbhajan Singh are likely to fill in there. But Samir is short and not strong enough and doesn’t have Mishra’s acceleration.
In the end, however, it’s just the mistakes that have to be shut off. Says Pargat: “At Atlanta two mistakes cost us a berth in the semi-finals. Against Argentina we lost 1-0 because of a faulty Aldrin clearance while defending a penalty corner, and against Germany when we were leading 1-0 with three minutes left we didn’t put an extra defender on the right flank where the attacks were coming from.” Well, let’s hope the team remembers.