The evening before our hockey team returned home last week after winning the three-nation tournament in Australia, the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) put out a press release urging the media to turn out in full strength to give our heroes all the publicity they deserved. The media throng turned up at the Delhi airport all right. So did the IHF officials, including federation President K.P.S. Gill. It is not everyday that an Indian hockey team comes back with an international trophy, that too after beating teams like Australia and Pakistan. To add to the feeling of satisfaction, just before this spectacular win they had finished second in a three-nation-four-team event in Perth which had two Australian sides.
The team was the toast of its fans at the airport. There were garlands and sweets for the players, and bhangra in the air. Then the interviews with the media. The celebrations and interviews over, the officials returned home in their cars, while the handful of players—most of them Punjab-bound as the others dispersed from Chennai and Bangalore—were herded into stuffy Rs 600-a-night rooms in a dingy Paharganj hotel. The euphoria over the win abruptly evaporated.
Ironical, because the IHF seems to be finally on the right path to put together a world-beating side. From good team combinations to regular competitions to commando training for improving fitness levels, it has taken a series of right decisions. But the mental well-being of the players still does not seem to figure in their scheme of things.
This, even after India played eight games in 12 days, won four, drew two and lost two. The two losses were both to Australia in the first tournament in Perth. India beat Pakistan and Australia once each and two wins came against Australia 'A'. On paper it does not seem to be all that great, but the bottomline is that there is some silverware to show off.
And that for the present is good enough. The tri-nation tournament also gave India its first title in 18 months since the Men's Challenge in December 2001. Baljit Dhillon was the top-scorer at that tourney. He was dropped after the World Cup last year, but now with his comeback things look good again.
Predictably, the players, media and officials have begun dreaming about a medal at the Athens Olympics next year. India has not won an Olympic medal since the boycott-hit Moscow Olympics in 1980. (The present coach, Rajinder Singh, was a member of that Moscow Olympics squad and also the coach of the World Cup winning junior team in 2001.)
So does the victory Down Under signify a resurgent Indian team, even a medal contender at Athens? Well, yes and no. The win was an achievement because Australia and Pakistan are strong teams, never mind what their coaches have to say after losing to India. But at the same time India still needs to contend with the likes of Holland, Germany and South Korea.
Also, don't believe the hype. In the past, Indian hockey teams have done extremely well in the months leading up to the Olympics. In the run-up to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, India beat all major teams on their European sojourn, and an Olympic medal seemed to be theirs for the asking. But when it came to the main event, they collapsed badly, failing to make it to the semi-finals and ending seventh, equalling their worst-ever showing (at Montreal Olympics in 1976).
Four years later, the team seemed to have found its form yet again. A win over Pakistan in the 1995 South Asian Federation Games in Chennai under the stewardship of Pargat Singh raised hopes of an Olympic medal. Once again, it crashed badly as India finished eighth at Atlanta.
But this team could still pull it off. One of the biggest gains it has made in the past year or so has been in terms of its physical fitness.Having a hard-nosed cop at the top has helped. Gill, it seems, has almost unilaterally decided that the Indian team needs to undergo commando training to improve its fitness levels and make it mentally strong, especially in the dying minutes of the matches. The training began on the eve of the Busan Asian Games last October. This January about 20 players were put through the strenuous commando training at the National Security Guards (NSG) camp at Manesar in Haryana.
There were rumours of some players being unhappy with such stiff training methods, but the model of South Koreans, who routinely use this system, has convinced Gill and he's stuck to his decision. Now the players admit their fitness is at a new peak. Captain Dhanraj Pillay, 34, who two years ago openly talked about retirement, now wants to continue for another 2-3 years. That would even take him to the Doha Asian Games in 2006.
On the selection front, the IHF did well this time to put together a team with the right mix of youth and experience. On the younger side, the team which won the Junior World Cup in 2001 seems to have come of age. Many of them have graduated to the senior team and become key players in the side, Jugraj Singh and Gagan Ajit Singh being fine examples. Add to them new faces like Sandeep Michael, who excelled on this Australian tour, and you get a team with a new zing.
India's scoring was also heartening with 21 goals coming in eight matches for an average of more than 2.5 per match. The appetite for goals on part of Pillay, Dhillon and Prabhjot augurs well for the team as does the midfield manned by Jugraj, Bimal Lakra, Viren Rasquinha and Ignace Tirkey. The new goalkeeper, young Kamalpreet Singh, is also shaping up well.
Even before leaving the Indian shores, coach Rajinder Singh had said the focus will be on "experimenting" and "trying new combinations in preparations for Athens Olympics". The Australian tournaments saw the implementation of two new rules relating to penalty corners. First, now even defenders are allowed to raise the stick above shoulder level to defend against a shot at the goal, and secondly, the ball no longer needs to be stopped dead, though it has to travel outside the striking circle, before a shot is taken during a penalty corner.
The Indians achieved greater success in penalty corners this time. Singh says his team's short-corner conversions and defending them has improved. He does admit that the side needed to be more mentally strong when defending leads in the closing stages of the game. That has been a big drawback as in the tournament before this in Perth, they conceded two goals in the last stages.
"This is a big boost for us for future tournaments particularly the Champions Trophy and next year's Athens Olympics," says Singh. But the Big Question is: Can the Indian team maintain the momentum?