Roelant Oltmans — the name evokes awe, pride and admiration. His contribution to enhancing the image and identity of the Dutch as a hockey super power is etched for posterity in the World Cup, Olympic Games and Champions Trophy records.
That a coach of such impeccable credentials is now guiding India enhances the feeling that our hockey is moving on the right path. There was scepticism when the team left for Ipoh with faint hopes and discernible fear of missing the World Cup and standing isolated from the elite countries.
And, it was not misplaced. Oltmans was under compulsion to select an inexperienced outfit. The principal attackers were on the injured list.
The sequence of events in the Asia Cup indicates a quantum leap. Oltmans’s perseverance and self-belief has piloted the team to be in line for the next World Cup and to a possible trophy triumph on Sunday.
India is the only team unbeaten in the competition. Its challenger in the final, defending champion Korea lost the pool match to India 2-0.
This will be India’s seventh final out of the nine so far, winning twice (2003 in Kuala Lumpur and 2007 at Chennai). In the last edition at Kuantan, India was fifth, the only time it missed the podium.
But sport today is immune to sentiments or history. If India courts victory, which is not impossible given the team’s confidence, the World Cup qualification puzzle will be solved. India will be an automatic entry as the continental champion.
India’s strength has been the defenders’ consistency and their tenacity. This includes goalkeeper, Sreejesh, who seems to have learnt a great deal from South African goalkeeping coach Dave Staniforth. Sreejesh has conceded only one goal in four matches, a testimony to his form.
Commendation is due for the hard work by the three in the backline — Raghunath, Rupinderpal Singh and Birendra Lakra. The midfield is marshalled magnificently by Sardar Singh with trusted allies Kothajit Singh, Dharamvir and Gurmail Singh.
In the forward line a veneer of unpredictability persists. Mandeep Singh is shaping well. But the 18-year-old has a long way to go before he blossoms into a formidable forward. Nikkin Thimmaiah has shown a lot of enterprise. But this line is yet to emerge as a lethal force to complement the effectiveness of penalty corner strikers Raghunath and Rupinder.
In venturing for the fourth win South Korea is facing another defining moment. Before the competition, its World Cup entry was confirmed after Argentina won the Pan American Games.
But as the coach, Shin Seok Kyo, noted it is the team’s desire to retain the trophy and make the grade as champion. With Paul Lissek as technical director, the Koreans must have hatched a strategy to turn the tables on India.
Korea’s strength is in penalty corners by Jang Jong and acceleration coupled with flawless trapping by everyone, notably Lee Nam Yong and Kang Moon.
However, India is just a step away from creating a historic moment.
Japan is fifth
Japan defeated Oman 3-1 to finish fifth, while Bangladesh finished seventh beating Chinese Taipei 11-3 in the classification matches.
The results: 7-8: Bangladesh 11(Khisa Pushkar 3, Manumur Rehman 4, Islam Mahmud Mainul 2, Muhamud Rashel 2) beat Chinese Taipei 3 (Hu Chen-Che, Liu Ching Kun, Chen Yuan-Fan).
5-6: Japan 3 (Kawakami Kei 2, Kawauchi Shinji) beat Oman 1 (Rajab Basim).
Sunday’s matches: (3-4): Malaysia v Pakistan (3-05 p.m.): Final: India v Korea (5-35 p.m. IST).