A play off

Arjun Halappa’s exclusion from Olympic qualifiers points to deeper problems

Written by Uthra G. Chaturvedi | Published: February 3, 2012 3:40 am

Arjun Halappa’s exclusion from Olympic qualifiers points to deeper problems

Not for the first time,a team selection has raised questions in Indian hockey,quickly snowballing into a controversy. Since the final squad of 18 for the Olympic qualifiers was announced early this week,the list has divided those who follow the sport.

While several senior players have been omitted for reasons ranging from lack of fitness to their inability to fit into the current system of play,it is the absence of one name — Arjun Halappa — that has forced the team management to go on a damage-control mode. While the coach Michael Nobbs tried to defend the decision,Halappa’s exclusion has triggered a debate on issues like management,transparency and communication between players and officials.

No clear reason has been given for dropping the 31-year-old veteran with over 300 international caps and 11 years of experience. The coach claims there are no fitness issues and that the decision was taken by selectors on form,while the selection committee insists that everyone was in favour of retaining Halappa in the final squad but did not press the issue simply because the coach and the trainer David John insisted the player wasn’t fully fit. The compromise formula of naming Halappa a stand-by was,perhaps,a bigger insult to his abilities and contribution to the sport.

While passing the blame has been a constant feature of Indian hockey,the background to the selection this time makes it intriguing. Halappa was among the prominent faces during the players’ strike in 2010 and has been among the most vocal supporters of the rebel World Series Hockey (WSH),being among the five players who attended a WSH press conference in August last year. That incident has all but ended the career of Adrian D’Souza,undoubtedly still the best goalkeeper in the country. Back then,as now,Nobbs had insisted that form and fitness were the only criteria for selection,but was unable to come up with any credible explanation for D’Souza’s omission as well. Halappa is only another victim of ego tussle between the Indian Hockey Federation and Hockey India.

The fact is that the hockey management is not looking beyond February 26,the final day of the qualifiers. Has an impossibly easy group in the qualifiers (Canada happen to be India’s closest competitor) given the management the freedom to pick and choose players,thinking that even a raw recruit may be able to hold off the opposition? That is a dangerous trend,for it shows a complete lack of respect for opponents and gives a false sense of confidence to youngsters who may be talented but lack exposure.

There are other issues simmering. Indians,who finally appeared to be playing as a team under Spanish coach Jose Brasa,are now a fragmented lot. Many players have said they are upset with Nobbs’s way of functioning. One of them who,interestingly,is considered to be in the good books of the coach,says planning has gone out of the window. Some say the trainer David John is the one who calls the shots in the team,with Nobbs reduced to a front.

Rajpal Singh,another former captain,has also been dropped,as has been Gurbaj Singh,among the most talented players in India today. It is perhaps a coincidence that both have had run-ins with David in the past few months.

Halappa’s exclusion apart,the team composition has come under the scanner. Despite authorities insisting that defence remains India’s key concern,the team does not have any proven defender but three drag-flickers. The lack of experience sticks out in the most crucial department — the midfield — with Sardar Singh the only one with enough international experience. And Halappa’s replacement in the team happens to be Kothajit Singh,no doubt talented,but with just two games (during the recent series against South Africa) under his belt. Not enough,one would presume,to substitute 11 years of experience at the highest level.

But then,as players themselves know,of late the team has not been a priority for those who run the sport.

uthra.ganesh@expressindia.com

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