For India,a moment of reckoning

Hockey team faces a litmus test as they take on the formidable — albeit in-transition — Netherlands

Written by Shivani Naik | Published: July 30, 2012 2:00:30 am

India knows way too much about decline curves and fading dynasties and creaking bones to not view their London Olympics hockey encounter against The Netherlands with some devilish anticipation. They’ve been to all those grim places of sporting rheumatism in the last 30-odd years as hockey dropped off the pedestal like a pebble going down an uneven hillock — hitting one kind of low,and then another,but always headed down. India runs into The Netherlands,a team in unsure transition,but by no means slippery on the turf.

The Dutch ribcage has needed some replacement — with several illustrious players from the squad that won the Olympics gold in 1996 and 2000 retired and ready replacements fetched up. In the lead-up year to the Olympics,though,their coach Paul van Ass had taken some tough calls,and then retraced his steps too — leaving out Teun de Nooijer and Taeke Taekama,before the former,perhaps the greatest contemporary hockey player,was taken back in the fold after public outcry over his omission.

Having fallen behind Germany and Australia to be the third-best side in the world — that’s as much as you can expect greatness to ‘fall’ in Holland — Indians can only hope that a certain panic or incertitude brought back de Nooijer. So even if it would be too much to expect the veteran himself to fail in what will be his fifth Olympics,Indians can run their hands in expectation of a certain tiny creak in perfection from their opening round opponents.

Ready to believe,Again

Not that India can be said to be in any great position to pounce on the situation,for they are still ranked No 10 in the world,came through an easy qualification and aren’t completely poised to take a shot at the top tier of international hockey. But the young team,on a seeming upswing,and with some exciting talent,playing attacking hockey could fancy their chances of dishing some enthralling stuff.

Indian captain Bharat Chetri told the media that London seemed like a good place to kickstart a turnaround,though the fear of frequent lapses into mediocrity and pathetic displays will haunt them. “We want to produce a good display. We are eager to show that the London connection with Indian hockey is not just symbolic,” Chetri said,aware that India won gold when London last hosted Olympics in 1948.

“They’ve been on the podium oftener than most in the last few Olympics. We can only try our best with our young team,” Nobbs had said of the team that is the only one after India to have won successive gold medals.

The Australian Nobbs senses the de Nooijer threat to his suspect defence,where Sardara Singh has often had to fall back to shore up the backline. “We’ve done the drills,but now need to execute them on the field,” he said,adding that Indian needed to minimise errors to zilch or would pay heavily for that. After having missed the last Olympics,the desire to do well drives the team. “2008 Chile was a bad dream. This is a big chance to start our campaign here on a good note,” said Chetri.

India competing in Group B have reigning Olympic champions Germany,Belgium,New Zealand and South Korea. “It is a tough game first up. But that’s good,” Nobbs said. More than anything else,it will be the first real test of Nobbs’ philosophy,and if it can hold its ground at the very top level of the sport. This,against a team they haven’t played in a long time,making both jittery about what to expect first-up.

“We could surprise them with our play as we have new people with a lot of youngsters here and are fitter than most think us to be,” explained Nobbs,referring to the likes of S.K.Uthappa,Dharmvir and Manpreet Singh. Gurbaj Singh has stepped up nicely,though India will reply on the penalty corner specialists big time.

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