India made its first big splash at the junior World Cup hockey tournament in 1997 at Milton Keynes, England, four years before it could actually lift the title. The team, led by Baljit Singh Saini and coached by V. Baskaran, had bagged the silver medal that caught everyone’s attention in the country.
The story was similar for both 1997 and 2001 sides, which earned podium finishes for India. As a coach, Baskaran had got all the support from the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) and had spent a lot of time grooming the younger lot into a formidable unit.
“The most important thing was that I had the team with me from 1995 onwards. We had qualified by winning the Asia Cup.
“That was the first time that a coach enjoyed additional support staff — an assistant coach, a doctor, a physical trainer, etc. We had excellent support from the Sports Authority of India and we trained well in Patiala and played some competitive matches at Bangalore,” Baskaran recalled.
“We won a tournament in Poland and had a 20-day camp in Limburg, Germany. We had a good training stint at Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre in UK, where we played a few matches against the senior English team.
“The overall environment was good and we were well-prepared.”
“We had some high-quality players — such as captain and midfielder Baljit Singh Saini, forward Rajeev Mishra, defenders Dilip Tirkey and Lazarus Barla — who blossomed to become prominent names.”
Baskaran said the team was highly competitive as it bounced back from its loss against Spain to beat strong teams like Pakistan, New Zealand and Germany.
“In the semis, we rallied to beat Germany 4-3.
“The final, which we lost 2-3 to Australia, was also a closely-fought affair.”
‘Memories still fresh’
Memories of the final were still fresh for Baljit, a coach with the current Indian junior team.
“We conceded a goal in the closing moments. It was so near yet so far.
“But, we had no regrets as we had given our best. Dilip and I were already Olympians. The two of us, along with Rajeev, were selected in the junior World XI side.
“On our return, we were treated like heroes. There were a lot of people to receive us at the airport.”
About the prospects of the present squad in the junior World Cup starting here on Friday, Baljit said, “We are capable of a podium finish, but our first target is to reach the semifinals.”
Will there be pressure of playing at home? “Once you cross the white line, you forget whether you are playing in India or abroad. You are just focused on the job,” said Baljit.