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Skipper Dhillon is Punjab's trump card

By Kamesh Srinivasan

JAMMU, DEC. 14. In modern hockey, a good penalty corner specialist is worth his weight in gold. Punjab looks to have one such trump card in Baljit Singh Dhillon. The team will look up to its skipper to carry it further, when the National hockey championship resumes on Friday with the semifinals, after a day of rest.

With a new-look Railways to tackle in the last-four stage, it may not be that difficult a task for Punjab to book its 24th final in the 60th edition of the championship. However, the team was wary of being overconfident despite the limitations of its opponent, and its own brilliant track record which has seen Punjab win all its seven matches - four in the zonal league and three in the super league.

``No team should be underestimated. We will not make the mistake against Railways. We ourselves struggled against Uttar Pradesh, but we are confident of doing well. Baljit Singh Dhillon is striking the penalty corners well, and he has trained Jugraj Singh nicely in this department,'' said Surjit Singh Grewal, who has been coaching the Punjab team for the last four years.

The team may miss half-back Ramandeep Singh, who got married recently, but has the competence to march ahead. Among the four teams that have made the knock-out, after 617 goals from 129 matches, Punjab may have scored the least, 17, but it has the strikepower to land decisive blows.

The advantage with Punjab is the fact that it would be match- ready like Indian Airlines, having finished its super league engagements only on Wednesday. In comparison, Railways has been cooling its heels along with Punjab and Sind Bank after qualifying for the semifinals four days ago.

``Too much gap before the semifinals is bad. But it is a do or die situation, and we will play good attacking hockey. Dhillon may be a threat, and Punjab is an experienced side as well, but my team will play its best,'' said Balwinder Singh, the coach of the Railways team, which too has chalked up an unbeaten record thus far in this edition.

Railways has scored 19 goals and conceded six in its eight matches, but has been able to find the match-winners, especially through the penalty-corner hits of Anup Tirkey, the brother of Dilip Tirkey.

Tirkey has a task on hand

The Indian Airlines skipper Dilip Tirkey will have the onerous task of getting his team back to its winning ways after the humbling experience against Services in the last match of the super league. That was the only defeat for the team from eight matches, and goalkeeper Ashish Ballal must be smarting under the wounds caused by Services that scored four goals. The Airlines had conceded only one goal in its previous seven matches in the championship.

Yet, when it comes to finding goals, no team can match Airlines, which has already slotted 46 goals, including 14 in the super league, the highest among the 16 teams. The team line-up is virtually a who's who of Indian hockey, and it should not be a surprise if Mukesh Kumar and company unleash their wrath on Punjab and Sind Bank in the afternoon.

The bank team emphasised its strength of character in making the semifinals, for the first time in the National championship, with Sanjeev Kumar virtually playing on one leg in the decisive match when the team beat Air India 2-1 to confirm its berth.

``We have won every other tournament. But we have not been that good in the National championship. So it was important to make the semifinals. That is why I played by taking an injection, despite a hairline fracture in my foot. I should be ready after the rest,'' said Sanjeev Kumar.

With Baljit Singh Chandi and Baljit Singh Saini in its ranks along with Alloysius Edwards under the goal, Punjab and Sind Bank can make a fight of it against Indian Airlines. Like all good teams, the bankmen have conceded only four goals in their seven matches while scoring 39, including 11 in the super league.

With every match having been played on the synthetic surface, it has indeed been a meaningful exercise to conduct the National championship with a zonal format followed by the super league.

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