Age-old problem

Like in the past,hockey’s senior-junior debate has once again ruffled a few feathers,writes our correspondent from the sidelines of the Gold Cup in Chandigarh

Written by Uthra Ganesan | Published:February 8, 2009 3:32 pm

Like in the past,hockey’s senior-junior debate has once again ruffled a few feathers,writes our correspondent from the sidelines of the Gold Cup in Chandigarh
Durchführen oder umkommen.” That’s what the Germans say when they give an ultimatum — “Perform or perish”. The phrase had seemed like a necessary rule in Indian hockey for a long time,but when it surfaced,it always brought with it an unnecessary verbal war and a clash of personalities.

Ironically,while the main protagonists of the drama this time around — chief coach Harendra Singh and national selector Aslam Sher Khan — have been coming out with statements and counter-statements,the central subjects of the debate — the senior players in the team — have been pushed to the background.

These are players who are considered over the hill,said to be past their prime and so,sometimes called a liability to the team. Players who,with close to 1,500 international caps between them,and having played for the country for almost a decade,have to justify their places in the team over and over again. Easy targets every time there is a downslide,Dilip Tirkey,Deepak Thakur,Arjun Halappa,Ignace Tirkey,Vikram Pillay and VS Vinaya are always the first on the chopping block.

Lost for answers
“I have no idea why this happens,” says Deepak Thakur,one of the key players for coach Harendra,and known for his never-say-die attitude,only as long as India are winning matches. “A few of us are being called ‘comeback’ players. We made our comeback at the first camp in Bangalore (in October),we made it to the squad of 18 for the Argentina tour,and we are playing here at the Gold Cup. Till when will this comeback tag remain? When will we finally be called regular team players? Comments that question our abilities and commitment make us wonder if every match is a comeback game for us,” he says.

Thakur is known for speaking his mind,and has paid a price for it in the past. He first fell out with coach Rajinder Singh,then V Baskaran,and most recently,Joaquim Carvalho said the striker had an attitude problem. Thakur defends himself fervently when asked about his frequent run-ins with coaches. “I can understand if someone dislikes me for who I am. But no one can say I’m not honest to myself or the game. I don’t have anything else other than hockey — no one in this team does,actually,” he says,adding that a coach’s support is always a big confidence boost.

Another regular target is Dilip Tirkey. He’s been the lone Indian name to feature regularly in the annual world all-star team announced by the International Hockey Federation — and the fact that it came with Indian hockey’s recent poor results makes the selection even more meaningful — he has earned respect internationally,but hasn’t been able to convince the authorities at home.
“It feels bad,” he says,“but what can we do? When a player hasn’t been playing,you need to find out why he is out of the team. And here all the playes have been doing really well,” he says about his colleagues in the ongoing four-nation Gold Cup in Chandigarh.
Dilip has been the backbone of the Indian defence for more than a decade now. “He is the kind of player whose mere presence in the team gives confidence to others. He is a calming influence,” says coach Harendra.

Long history
The current debate has only added another chapter to a story of unceremonious sackings that goes back more than a decade. When India came back victorious from the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok,seven players were dropped for making comments against the IHF,and MK Kaushik for supporting them. Then,during the 2003 Champions Trophy,coach Rajinder Singh had criticised senior players for not concentrating on the game during a camp. A day after India won their maiden Asia Cup in 2003,Dhanraj Pillay and Rajinder Singh had a clash at the Chennai airport.

This time,like in 1998,the coach is on the players’ side. “Stephan Veen was 30 when he played for a total of 17 minutes in the Sydney Olympics final in 2000. But in those few moments,he scored all three goals to help Holland win gold,” says Harendra,who was India’s assistant coach in Sydney,when asked about the age debate. There are other examples. Dutch midfielder Teun de Nooijer is almost 33 and still a key member of their team. Brent Livermore of Australia is also 33.

The Indian coach feels strongly that form and fitness,and not age,should be the parameters to judge a player. “Any player who can work hard and prove himself during fitness and selection trials should be given a chance.”
On his part,Aslam Sher Khan says that the yardstick for performance must be different for juniors and seniors because of their past records,and that young players should be given a longer rope.

In 2005,former defender and the organising secretary of the Gold Cup tournament,Pargat Singh,had said about the coach vs selector debate: “A coach should concentrate on his job and avoid giving statements to the media in between tournaments.”

The same,naturally,holds true for selectors as well. Not surprisingly,things haven’t changed much in Indian hockey over the years.

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