Can India strike a medal?

ATHENS, AUG. 14. A medal for India? The question has some relevance and must be addressed with a measure of circumspection. Understandably, the Indians are admired for their adeptness and the touch of aesthetics they demonstrate. And there ends the matter.

Coaches like Barry Dancer and Terry Walsh, as Australians, appreciate India's nuances. But they, handling two formidable combinations — Australia and defending champion the Netherlands respectively — do not exactly waste as much midnight oil on India as they will do while working out a strategy to beat Argentina, which is in the same pool.India takes on Holland on Sunday. India has been drawn in a soft pool as compared to Pakistan. But how well the Indians prepare themselves to be seen as potential candidates for the semifinals remains to be seen.

There has never been a tournament in the last two decades in which India did not start as good enough to cause an upset or two. But nothing of that sort has happened in the competitions that matter — World Cup, Olympics and Champions Trophy. It is almost three decades since India saw a medal in the World Cup, and 24 years since the `valueless' gold at Moscow in 1980.

Bitter taste

Stressing a negative factor does not mean running down the quality, or even the meticulous way in which the team has been prepared. The team had plenty of exposure. But the sequence of events before selection leading to the change of coach left a bitter taste.The last meeting with Holland in the Robobank Trophy went against India (0-2). The series in Hyderabad went to the Dutch. The Indian playing combination has been shuffled so many times in the recent months that it is difficult to predict what sort of attack or defence will function effectively.

The emphasis, however, is on the experience and expertise of Dhanraj Pillay, playing his fourth Olympics, and Baljit Singh Dhillon. But the important element is scoring. And for that the trio of Deepak, Gagan and Prabhjot, has to be much sharper. Teams at this level commit far too few errors.

The mid-field, where Ignace Tirkey and Viren Resquinha are expected to play key roles, needs to be tight throughout. Worrisome is the inconsistency of the deep defence and goalkeeping, despite coaching by the Dutch ace, Frank Leistra. That Sandeep Singh, the drag flicker in the squad, has recovered from an injury is indeed a welcome relief on the eve of the competition.

The Netherlands and the Aussies are viewed as prospective qualifiers, though the unpredictable Argentines, with a string of sharp shooters like Mario Almada and Carlos Retgui, not to speak of the old warhorse, Jorge Lombi, have an outside chance.

Tough pool

Assessed from any angle, Pool A is tough. Any two among world champion Germany, thrice gold medallist Pakistan, the silver medallist of the last Olympics South Korea, and the re-emerging Spain under the Dutch master coach, Maurits Hendriks, can figure in the semifinals. The Bernhard Peters-trained Germans are solid, programmed and ingenuous, headed by the towering Florian Kunz, aided brilliantly by Bjorn Michel, Sascha Reinalt, and Christoph Bechmann.

Pakistan's progress is clearly linked to the form and success of Sohail Abbas as also to the strategy evolved by the Dutch coach, Roelant Oltmans. Like Gerhard Rach of India, Oltmans also faces a critical evaluation of his efficacy back home if the Pakistanis flounder.

Spain under Hendriks is a vibrant combination as the Champions Challenge in Rundburg and the pre-Olympic in Madrid showed. In Eduard Tabau and Pol Amat the team has two world class strikers. This should not ignore the presence of a veteran in the calibre of Juan Escarre.

The Asian Games champion, South Korea, appears to be a little bit stale in its approach. The opportunism of Song Tae Sung and the flicking competence in penalty corners by Yew Woo Koon should generate some hope for the supporters.

Dr. Paes to assist

Meanwhile, former hockey Olympic bronze medallist, Dr. Vece Paes, father of tennis ace Leander, has agreed to be the doctor for the Indian hockey team here. Vece Paes, one of the finest mid-fielders in the late sixties and early seventies, donned the National colours at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

The Indian Hockey Federation was under compulsion to nominate assistant coach, Jagbir Singh, as the manager so that he can be seated on the bench with the players. The FIH is strictly enforcing the regulation that the stand-in-manager — Jagbir Singh was registered in that role — will be allowed sit on the bench only in case the manager is injured or otherwise unable to carry on the work.

Pool A: Germany, South Korea, Pakistan, Great Britain, Spain and Egypt; Pool B: The Netherlands, Australia, India, Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa.

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