SPORT

Veterans say Champions Trophy tougher than Olympics or World Cup

MUMBAI Aug. 10. The Champions Trophy hockey championship is considered to be field hockey's biggest event, bigger than the Olympic Games or World Cup because competition is restricted to an elite group of six teams, but is it the toughest test for a National side in the world?

Four hockey experts, all multiple Olympians with first-hand knowledge of competition in this six-nation tournament, emphatically say so. Jagbir Singh, Pargat Singh, Merwyn Fernandes and M. Somaya are of the opinion that it cannot get any tougher than this.

India is one of the six sides starring in the 25th edition at the FIH-organised tournament in Amstelveen, commencing on August 16. These experts, with decades of playing experience behind them before taking up coaching or writing, also stress upon the fact that in view of high-class field, a place among the first three should be celebrated as an achievement.

Former India centre-forward Jagbir, a member of the 1989 Champions Trophy side, says there is no event to match the six-nation tournament in terms of pure intensity. "Champions Trophy match demands so much from a player, every match is like a World Cup final," said the 1992 Barcelona Olympian, in a telephonic conversation with The Hindu from Agra, adding: "Result at the Champions Trophy is an indicator of whether preparations for upcoming majors like Olympics are on the right path."

Jagbir says that the Rajinder Singh-coached side has moved out of a defensive mindset, triggered by `total hockey' approach in recent past. "India will be coming to Amstelveen after scoring the maximum number of goals in two preparatory tournaments in Australia and Germany. We are also conceding many goals, a fact which can be corrected in camps, but the

important point is that India is showing the sort of attacking hockey we should have been playing all these years. The side seems mentally confident."

Ace defender Pargat Singh ranks the Champions Trophy as the most difficult tournament, ahead of even Olympics or World Cup and says India has the men and mettle to make a mark if the team can sustain the effort. "Teams and players taking part in the Champions Trophy have to maintain their performance over five matches, without a moment's rest in between. Any of six sides can win, so even the smallest mistake will be punished," said the Punjab Police men's hockey coach, speaking from Jalandhar.

The four-time Olympian believes the Indian forwardline will be a potent force due to speed and penetration. "The 2003 Indian team has experienced strikers who can beat opponents and score. Earlier Indian teams had one or two strikers, now the whole forwardline has speed and any of them can get us goals. However, what counts is the team's performance percentage and if all players can consistently play upto a certain level, a place in the top three is not beyond reach. A medal of any colour will be fantastic."

Merwyn Fernandes too agrees that a place in the first three will be creditable. "Germany and Holland have always been superior in major competitions, so any medal will be a big achievement for India," said the

Mumbai-based coach of Indian Airlines and an integral member of the 1982 squad which finished third at Amstelveen. "Any of the six can win, like it happened on the 1982 final day when Pakistan, Holland, India and Australia were all in the running for the title."

The triple Olympian and a famous inside-forward of the 80s, Merwyn stresses on the value of confidence. "The current side is a nice mix of youth and experience, with the juniors looking up to the seniors who are putting in extra effort in camps and competitions. Coach Rajinder has succeeded in managing to keep the team together so far. What counts is how the side reacts to adversity."

India's recent penalty corner conversions will also come in handy, points out Pargat, a pillar in the defence for decades. "Baljit Dhillon and Jugraj Singh are very effective now in that area and scoring crucial goals. It takes time for penalty-corner hitters to develop, these two have come through in the last two years. We have in Dilip Tirkey maybe the only hitter in the world now scoring through direct hits."

Merwyn finds India's penalty corner success surprising, especially Tirkey's goals coming via direct hits. "He has an uncanny knack of striking angular shots, bending his knee while taking the shot. If Tirkey can stay free of injuries, India's goals will come through corners, now that Jugraj's drag flicks are also going in."

Former India captain, selector and manager, Maneypandey Somaya, an intelligent midfielder with three Champions Trophy and Olympics appearances, asserts that there is no event tougher than the Champions Trophy. "The Olympics or World Cups are held once in four years, hence they have an aura and a different kind of pressure. For sheer competition, the Champions Trophy is the toughest test for any hockey international in the world," he says, sounding upbeat about India's goal-getting prowess. "Our forwards have shown flair and scored against some of the best sides. Many of them are juniors who are now getting goals at the senior level. Indian flair can flourish at any level, even the Champions Trophy."

Pargat ticks off the 1985 Berlin event as the best of his career. "It is because of the 5-5 draw against Germany, with a solo goal getting me recognition internationally. Not many teams can even think of coming back against Germany when down 1-5. India managed to fight back, I got a memorable goal so the excitement of Berlin is still remembered." India shockingly ended up in sixth and last, which he attributed to inconsistency.

"We drew with Germany, performed below par in others. In an event like the Champions where all six sides are capable of winning, such ups and downs do not help."