Indian hockey at a crossroads

AMRITSAR, OCT. 7. The press box at the Sector 42 Stadium in Chandigarh was spacious. "No less than 145 seats have been marked for you," we were told by an enthusiastic volunteer. "Are we at a cricket match," joked a colleague.

But we discovered the press box was just a mirage. What we had not been told was that it was only a negligible part of the enclosure, reserved for all and sundry right in the middle of a raucous crowd that revelled in adding to the chaos.

The media facilities, to put things in perspective were non-existent. In the words of the Indian Hockey Federation Media Manager Anupam Gulati, they were "atrocious." So much for the IHF's efforts to present itself as friendly, and media savvy. The organisers were indifferent to the point that one of them suggests the facilities were far better than in Delhi.

Nothing could have been more astounding than a former Olympian being asked to move aside so that a select few could enjoy the view better. The ambience — a packed stadium at a hockey match — was sullied by such incidents.

Amritsar, we know, is best when it comes to warmth and hospitality. This, at a time, when the team has begun to show signs of picking itself up under the hard taskmaster, Gerhard Rach. The German is coming to terms with his assignment. Strict he is but fair too.

The Indian team's performance in the Dosti Series 2004 may have caused anxiety among those who have not found a place in the current scheme of things. Gagan Ajit Singh, for example. He is just waiting to get back to the business of scoring goals and has been assured by the coach that there is a place for him. Not immediately but in the near future as Rach works to raise a force that promises to bring the crowds back, and glory too. The astonishing spectator response at Chandigarh could undoubtedly be a significant step in that direction.

Stiff challenge

Indian hockey is at a crossroads with the team management facing a stiff challenge. How to monitor the transition process without disturbing the nucleus of the side that has shown signs of improvement! "We're beginning to strike rhythm and combination," said assistant coach Jagbir Singh.

Rach is happy with the way the team has played this series. "We're trying a few things and I'm happy to say that our plans have worked in the right direction," he made no effort to hide his satisfaction.

In the absence of Dilip Tirkey, the team rose to pay tribute to his resilience in the 1-1 draw that did leave Pakistan dejected. Viren Rasquinha played his role as a defender to perfection.

The Indian camp could draw motivation from the improved show by the youngsters, who have made up for the absence of seniors like Dhanraj Pillay, Baljit Singh Dhillon, Prabhjot Singh, Deepak Thakur, Gagan and Bimal Lakra. The emphasis is on forging an effective and cohesive forward-line and here Rach can draw confidence from Sandeeep Michael, Tushar Khandekar and Arjun Halappa, who have distinguished themselves in the ongoing series.

New-look team

The new-look Indian team has matched the opposition in every department with goalkeeper Adrian D'Souza growing in esteem of everyone. Rach is a big fan of this courageous custodian. The defence has also served with distinction thus far with William Xalco, a Dilip Tirkey in the making, and Sandeep Singh making impressive progress as an exponent of drag flick. Prabhot Tirkey looks a very good investment with his versatile nature of play. The team can draw motivation from Vikram Pillay in the role of an attacking midfielder.

<167,7,3>The bench strength is looking good for Indian hockey. And that has been the biggest gain from this series, which enters the final stretch with the seventh and penultimate Test at the Guru Nanak Dev University ground here on Friday.

<167,7,3> Tirkey ruled out

Dilip Tirkey will miss tomorrow's match due to a hairline fracture in his right cheek bone. Tirkey has suffered the injury during the match in Delhi when he was struck by a Sohail Abbas drag flick. Tirkey will however join the team on the flight to Hyderabad for the last match.

<167,7,3>The teams:

<167,7,3>India: Devesh Chauhan, Adrian D'Souza, Harpal Singh, William Xalco, Sandeep Singh, Ignace Tirkey, Viren Rasquinha (captain), Vikram Pillay, Prabodh Tirkey, V. S. Vinay, Vivek Gupta, Arjun Halappa, Hari Prasad, Adam Sinclair, Girish Pimpale, Sundeep Michael and Tushar Khandekar.

<167,7,3>Pakistan: Waseem Ahmed (captain), Salman Akbar, Nasir Ahmad, Sohail Abbas, Kashif Jawad, Dilawar Hussain, Mudassar Ali Khan, Shakil Abbasi, Zeeshan Ashraf, Adnan Zakir, Adnan Masood, Tariq Aziz, Mohd Shabbir, Ghazanfar Ali, Imran Khan, Akhtar Ali and Mohd Imran.