SPORT

The frontline needs reshaping and recasting

CHENNAI, OCT. 11. Any endeavour at interpreting the outcome of the eight-Test hockey series between India and Pakistan must be from the standpoint of the close verdicts in most of the matches. That India managed to win two and force a draw in two more is some consolation, notwithstanding the loss of the series.

The forecast before the series was a rout for the inexperienced Indian squad. Mercifully, that assessment did not prove right. It was understandable that a perceptible note of pessimism prevailed in the wake of the poor performance at the Athens Olympics. Accentuating it was the compulsion to recasting the squad in the absence of the five seasoned players, including Dhanraj Pillay and Baljit Singh Dhillon.

While there were reasons advanced for the omission of Prabhjot Singh and Deepak Thakur, no convincing explanation was proffered for sidelining a splendid striker like Gagan Ajit Singh even for the home leg. There could have been a re-think on his inclusion for the last four Tests, at least to keeping Gagan's confidence level at a reasonably high pitch.

Indisputably, the series was one of the most listless between the two countries since the bilateral exchanges began in 1978. True, the spectator response was good at some places — especially where the stadia were small — but the quality of hockey was abysmally poor.

Barring the high point of Sohail's world record of 268 goals, beating that of Paul Litjens after 22 years, the aesthetics and artistry, the essence of the Asian style which everyone on either side of the border visualised that the exchanges would strengthen, were not in evidence at all.

The young Indians were a bit diffident. But it was surprising that the Pakistani attack showed total lack of punch despite featuring stars like Kashif Jawaad, Shabbir Hussain and Rehan Bhatt. Even the usually efficient mid-field showed no sparkle.

Admittedly, the Indians gained more. It was heartening to see the blossoming of Adrian D'Souza into a goalkeeper of some substance. He has learnt a lot from training under the Dutch goalkeeping coach, Frank Leistra. He has acquired a few ingenuous means to tackle penalty corners, succeeded a few times even against the redoubtable Sohail Abbas. With little more support from the defence, Adrian can be an asset.

Barring Dilip Tirkey, the rest of the deep defenders were either impetuous or inhibited. Sandeep Singh should improve his percentage of conversion considerably to confirm his place in the squad for the next few years. Perhaps expectedly, the mid-field, led gallantly by the stout-hearted Viren Resquinha and supported by Vikram Pillay, Vinay and Ignace Tirkey, stood up to the pressure although there was none to provide the frontline with those adroit forward passes. Bimal Lakra filled that role perfectly not long ago. The newcomer Vivek Gupta, adept as a pivot, must be more attacking.

Consistency and craft were not the forte of the frontline. Individually, Sandeep Michael and Arjun Halappa were hard working, but at no point was the attack sharp and smooth to penetrate with a velocity that can upset the rhythm of the rival defence. Hariprasad and Khandekar have to put in a lot more work to retain their places.

There is nothing for the administration to be complacent about. With a place in the Champions Trophy at Lahore still within reach, the IHF should look ahead in a pragmatic way. Without an iota of doubt, the frontline requires to be reshaped and cast again. Gagan, Deepak and Prabhjot should be integrated with Sandeep Michael, Halappa and Adam Sinclair to make the frontline more effective and efficient.

The lessons are clear. An honest evaluation and taking the right steps to rework the strategies will definitely enhance the profile of the team in future competitions.

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