BACK in 1984, India fielded what was seen as one of the best-ever hockey sides at the Los Angeles Olympics. Yet, they finished fifth when a semi-final spot was theirs for the asking. Left-winger Zafar Iqbal missed what he himself acknowledged as a sitter of a goal against Germany. The match ended goalless when India needed a victory to advance into the round of four.
Recalling the incident in graphic detail, Iqbal, recently in Bangalore as member of the selection committee, admitted that the '84 squad was as talented as any other that India had sent out during the days when they were 'kings of hockey'. Says he: "It had an excellent balance, though the right-wing was not as sharp as the left. But then, the team had so much talent that it was thought we would certainly win a medal."
Now, on the eve of the Atlanta Olympics, the feeling that India has every chance to finish in the 1-3 bracket is all-pervasive. Earlier in Barcelona, Iqbal, having watched India decimate the Netherlands 4-1 during the qualifying tournament, commented: "I think the present team is much better than the '84 squad. They are faster and fitter than we were. Forget that the team does not have a specialist left-winger. In modern hockey, that shouldn't matter much. I won't be surprised if we stand on the victory podium."
Not mere sentiment, his optimism is based on the overall strength of the present team. If one were to overlook the absence of Ashish Ballal, India's no. 1 goalkeeper, and centre-half Jude Felix in Singapore as a professional, it is the best side India can have.
For nearly a year now the players have been together barring a few changes on the fringes. That should favour the team's coordination on the field. Victories against Olympic champions Germany and World Cup winners Pakistan in the past year have boosted the stock of the team.
India's strengths lie in its intermediate line and deep defence, and not so much in the forwards who tend to miss two goals for every one scored. Chief coach Cedric D'Souza has been harping on this in his training sessions where the accent has been on sharpening scoring skills. In fact, one did not see much activity in counter-attack defence. Evidently, the feeling is that deep defence is in capable hands and should hold its own against the best forward-lines.
Hockey has been so transformed in recent years that matches are often won and lost in the midfield. India will definitely miss Felix, a veteran of the '88 and '92 Olympics and deemed one of the best centre-half in the world today. His successor Mohammad Riaz has been steady at best with a few great passes. But Riaz, who started out as inside-forward before switching to centre-half, often suffers from a drop-in-confidence level, as in the qualifier in Barcelona. A lot depends on his consistency in Atlanta.
If Riaz has only recently settled in his pivotal role, then India can take heart from the presence of Ramandeep Singh and Harpreet Singh who will be flanking the centre-half. Ramandeep has the potential of a world-class left-half, but the 23-year-old will be lost to Indian hockey after the Olympics as he intends to migrate to New Zealand. Much is expected from him in Atlanta. He successfully converted the deciding fifth penalty in the tie-breaker against Germany in the '95 Azlan Shah Cup. In the past two seasons, he has emerged as a key player for India with his tackling and covering at left-half where the pressure is maximum.
Skipper and full-back Pargat Singh will man the other key position in deep defence with Anil Aldrin. Pargat, dropped after the Barcelona fiasco four years ago, when a faction-ridden India finished a poor seventh, staged a stirring comeback last year with no small effort from Vasudevan Bhaskaran, coach of the second national team.
In the event, Pargat, a much-mellowed and mature player, silenced critics with quality displays. Though he has noticeably slowed down, his tackling and hits are still beyond reproach. Atlanta will test his ability to inspire and guide a team.
In the forward-line, centre-forward Dhanraj Pillay has recovered from his bad patch and rediscovered his scoring form and today is one of the closely-marked forwards in world hockey. Only too aware of his status, he said in Barcelona: "I know that I will be marked closely in Atlanta. But my stint in the French league has helped me to learn a few tricks to get past my marker." He added: "If there's one player I'd like to have on my right, it is Sabu Varkey. He is the best inside-right in the country. He knows my game and style like the back of his hand."
HIS wish has been granted with the inclusion of Varkey who was dropped after the '94 Sydney World Cup due toillness and returned to the national team early this year during the Indira Gandhi Gold Cup. Since his comeback, Varkey has shown that he has lost none of his skill and scheming ability. He has even scored a few goals, notably against Australia. Said D'Souza: "I expect a lot from him in Atlanta; he's one of my key players."
D'Souza expressed similar sentiments on Baljit Singh Saini, whom Bhaskaran converted into a quality inside-forward after moving him from the right-half position.
Said Bhaskaran: "He's a tremendously gutsy player. His presence along with Varkey gives Cedric more options while strengthening the bench strength."
Overall, the team has all the ingredients of a winner and definitely compares favourably with previous Olympic squads since '80 when India last won a medal (gold). Curiously, that team was one of the most inexperienced since the '48 London games. It had 14 debutants, including Zafar Iqbal, Mohammad Shahid, Mervyn Fernandes and M.M. Somaya. The last three names went on to play the '84 and '88 Olympics.
The '48 squad comprised 22 players, all making their Olympic debut at a time when the size of the squad was not restricted to 16. There were 11 changes for the '84games, 13 for '88 and '92 and 11 for Atlanta. By these standards, the current team seems rather inexperienced. But then, as in '84, the core of the side had crystallised two years ago. The present team is also better prepared to face international competition, results notwithstanding. It has already been on 11 tournaments since D'Souza took charge in '94. Previous Olympic squads lacked such exposure. The emphasis today is more on competition than training camps which have become fewer, though more intensive.
But the preparation 'over-kill', strain of constant travel and competition, could show up in Atlanta. The team may not be able to sustain its collective form and, more importantly, peak during the games. D'Souza, however, is unconcerned as he has planned a 10-day training in Atlanta prior to the competition.
But then, as M.P. Ganesh, the former World Cup captain and national coach, and presently executive director, Sports Authority of India (south centre), said: "You can never be sure of anything in modern hockey, least of all India's performance. But this is one of the best teams I have seen in a long, long time. I wouldn't be surprised if we win a gold or at least a medal."
Given the potential, his prediction might just come true. That India will be adding to her Olympic tally of eight gold (1928, '32, '36, '48, '52, '56, '64 and '80), one silver ('60) and two bronze ('68 and '72) medals.