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Pillay's goal was the turning point

By Mervyn Fernandis
August 18, 2004 17:39 IST
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The Indian hockey team gave its fans many anxious moments for the second time in the men's Olympic hockey tournament on Tuesday before snatching a late victory over South Africa and picking its first full points.

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Two goals down in the first 12 minutes, an insipid display in the next 13 against a team ranked much lower than them, gave one the feeling that Dilip Tirkey and his boys were disinterested and were in Athens for a picnic. There was no urgency whatsoever in their play and the simplest tasks seemed difficult. Trapping and passing appeared an ordeal as the eight-time Olympic champions laboured to save face.

But, in the end, full marks to the team for the magnificent recovery and hard-fought 4-2 victory.

A victory was vital for India, as the unpredictable Argentineans had held the mighty Australians and favourites from the same pool to a 2-2 draw in the earlier match of the day. Now it is vital that the Indians win all their matches against teams that are relatively less strong than the favourites, Holland. They must beat Australia in their next match and then take at least a point from New Zealand and Argentina, the other teams in the group, to brighten the chances of making the semi-finals.

Young Sandeep Singh, basically included in the team for his drag flicks, was again at the receiving end. One feels sorry for him. In the unfamiliar position as defender, he seems out of sorts. I strongly feel the lad should not be included in the starting line-up, as he is unable to withstand the initial pressure. He should be used in short spells once the team has settled down.

It is here that the coach and senior players in the team have a role to play. Though Sandeep committed some blunders which proved costly in the matches against Holland and South Africa, he has to be encouraged and reminded that even the great Sohail Abbas and our very own Jugraj Singh initially had problems with their tackling and positioning after being fielded as defenders because of their proficiency in drag flicks.

Every game has its turning points, and I thought Dhanraj Pillay's opportunistic rebound from a penalty-corner in the last nine minutes of the first half to reduce the margin to 1-2 brought the Indians back into the game, because commencing the second half 0-2 behind has its own negative effect than a 1-2 deficit.

In the second session, the Indians started positively and I personally feel the think-tank took the right decision of playing the most experienced players for longer spells. No doubt Dhanraj and Baljit Dhillon were guilty of holding on to the ball a bit too much, but it has to be noted that except for Vikram Pilay in the half line, there is not a single player capable of getting past a defender and making an attacking, goal bound pass.

In both the matches the Indians could not break through the opponent's defence because they kept making parallel passes. How on earth can a team make inroads that way? I am not advocating forward passes all the time, but whenever there is space it has be exploited to pressurize the opponents. There will be times when forward passes will be intercepted but certain amount of risks have to be taken.

In the match against South Africa, Dhan, Dhillon and Vikram combined well and created some openings to enter the rival circle and it was due to their attacking play that the team was able to force short corners. It was heartening to witness Dhillon and Tirkey score the second and third goals from short corners though both are not in the same class as Sohail Abbas, Jorge Lombi or, for that matter, Teake Takema. What is astonishing is that Tirkey is still able to convert short corners off direct hits when that method of scoring is outdated in contemporary hockey since the drag flick took over. 

Looking at the overall performance, Dilip and Viren Rasquinha did not excel but gave a reasonably good account of themselves. The same cannot be said about Ignace Tirkey . Much is expected of him and one hopes he returns to his old form in the coming matches.

Goalkeeper Adrian D'Souza once again stood out, making some crucial saves. It is so important to stay focused right through the game in spite of conceding goals early and Adrian really proved himself.

Over to India's next game against Australia: The draw against Argentina has hurt the Aussies badly, and one can be sure about the wounded tigers coming out firing. Like Holland and South Africa, they too will try and exploit the chinks in the Indian defence early. The Indians will have to hold firm in the 15-20 minutes and ensure that they don't concede a goal. That done they can settle down and take the Aussies in their stride.

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Mervyn Fernandis