A Salute (courtesy: Indian Expresss)
A Salute (courtesy: Indian Expresss)

Lost in all the hoopla of the recently concluded series against SA and the forthcoming IPL III edition is   the Hockey WC!  With everyone from the  teams, former players,  politicians, celebrities et al playing their part to promote the game,  we as mere bloggers should be doing the same too!

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t been the keenest follower of hockey in my lifetime. I have watched quite a few games, especially when India has been involved. Unfortunately, I’ve been living in an era where hockey has been more of an afterthought, marred by extremely poor player development at the grassroots level, corruption at the administrative areas,  piss poor refusal to evolve with the game, and just sheer suckiness in performances!  But being a lover of sport (except watching Chess- I just can’t seem to do it), I have made a promise to myself to understand and follow this game better.

There’s 1 more aspect to all this. The fall from grace of the essence of Indian hockey overlapped with a golden period for another sport,  where a bunch of underdogs captured the imagination of the nation by displacing the seemingly invincible West Indies in a game called Cricket. Money started pouring in like wine. Suddenly the faces behind , “Palmolive ka jawab nahi”, and “Boost is the secret of my energy” became  the poster child of every household.   This caused something of a mass polarization effect with the junta, almost leaving them to choose between 1 of 2 paths : between a sport whereby the glory days were behind and it was all seemingly downhill , and one with a fledgling bunch had just conquered a summit which few thought could be reached.

This continued through the 90s into the 21st century. New stars were born in 1 sport, and old stalwarts faded away in another.   India, as a nation, was on the forefront of 1 game’s evolution showing an eagerness to adopt to new formats, strategies, tactics and sports marketing , it plunged into new lows in the other. While 1 board became the richest in the world, the other was reduced to controversies over player compensation and compassion.

Amidst the administrative chaos, monetary mess, security threats and mayhem, the Hockey World Cup kicked/sticked off at New Delhi with 3 pool B games.  I managed to catch a good amount of the 1st couple of games, but let’s just focus on the prime-time clash between the 2 South Asian neighbors.

It looks like when India takes on Pakistan at Hockey, it almost always seems to be a 1-sided affair, with 1 team mauling the other all over the turf.  The sheer emotions of the encounter always seems to overwhelm 1 and inspire the other. It was no different yesterday, with India emerging victorious. As always, I wouldn’t say that the quality of hockey was the greatest, but it was an absorbing encounter all the same.

Right from the start, it looked like India wanted this one just a bit more. Perhaps it was the sight of the16000+  screaming fans which egged them on, or the desperation to live up to all the marketing hype, or just the sheer passion, the Indian players seemed to just dig up that 1 extra pulse of energy to run that much harder, dive that much further, tackle that much more tenaciously.

None epitomised it more than my Man of the Match – Gurbaz Singh.  The defensive midfielder played his heart out, thwarting almost every move that the Pakistanis tried to put together, especially in the first half.  Almost every run down the left flank by Pakistan was cut off by a dive, interception, of sheer will of Gurbaz, who just refused to lie low. He , along with Vikram Pillay and Dhananjay , completely disrupted any rhythm that the Pakistanis tried to put together.

On the attack though, it was seemingly all Sandeep Singh.  He had 4 chances, and 3 of them had directly or indirectly led to goals. His 2 penalty conversions were as clinical and effective, just what a team needs to maximize such opportunities. Shivendra, the recipient of the 1st goal scored on the rebound (courtesy Sandeep), has some serious speed , which he displayed more than once down the flanks.   I didn’t see much of the captain Rajpal Singh, but  he did put on a sweet move on the flank, effortlessly and gracefully changing the direction of movement to lose his marker. Almost like a Cryuff-turn!  I wasn’t really convinced with Sreejeth , the goal-tender. Not really sure how bad Adrian could have sucked in the pre-game practices for Sreejeth to earn the starting spot, but let’s hope it improves!

For Pakistan, not much really went right.  With the Indians setting such a frenetic pace to begin with, the onus was on them to slow down the pace, and strike first to take the crowd out of it. Unfortunately, that was not to be. What made it worse for them was that the goal posts decided to don the Indian jersey, denying the imperious Sohail Abbas not once, but twice (Sreejeth and the defence were absolutely clueless on both counts).  The first opportunity, had it gone in,  could have balanaced the game out a lot more, but it just seemed to be India’s day. Rehan Butt, who has tormented India in the past , was almost a non-factor yesterday, and his form is crucial for the team to make some noise in the tournament.  Abbas, the class act that he is, finally did get on the score sheet with his 3rd  PC attempt.  3 Attempts, 2 strikes on the post, and 1 goal . On any other, it could have been 3 against his name! Salman Akbar,  the Pakistani keeper, was tested early and often, and if he decided to whack his defense with a hockey stick, he’d be justified.  The defensive line looked clueless and disorganized.

The next games for both teams will be crucial. Each play top class opposition with extremely contrasting styles ( you know….. where the ball does more travelling than the players) ,and it will be interesting to see how they adapt.