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 August 30, 2002 | 2025 IST

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India face uphill task against Holland

An erratic defence and a sluggish midfield are the areas demanding immediate attention from coach Rajinder Singh as India prepare for battle in the prestigious six-nation Champions Trophy hockey tournament, beginning in Cologne, Germany, on Saturday.

India are figuring in the Champions Trophy after a six-year hiatus, and the tournament presents an opportunity for the country to salvage some pride after the dismal tenth-position finish in the Kuala Lumpur World Cup in February.

The last time India played in the Champions Trophy was 1996, at Madras, as hosts.

The tidings in the lead-up to this current edition are hardly encouraging; the team lost to Australia and Holland and drew with South Korea as it finished last in the four-nation Rabobank Classic last week.

Thus, the odds are undoubtedly stacked against India though coach Rajinder Singh and his boys are more than eager to make amends. The acid test begins on Saturday when the team takes on Olympic champions Holland in the second match of the day's programme after Pakistan open against hosts Germany. In the last match of the day, South Korea take on Australia.

With the Dutch looking to make up for the World Cup failure, India, needless to say, will have a tough opener. Much will depend on how their midfield and defence performs.

Rajinder Singh knows that to dream right now would be foolhardy. The Rabobank Classic exposed the huge gap that exists between the top teams and India.

"I think we have a huge task ahead of us," said Rajinder, as the team trained at the stadium. "Playing in the Champions Trophy is prestigious but we also need to do well. We need to put that talent into the right place so that the input that goes also shows results in terms of victories."

Rajinder has played enough hockey for India at the top level to know and realise that there is a yawning gap between junior sides and senior teams.

"Of course, I know that the success I achieved with the junior team in winning the Junior World Cup will be difficult to replicate but at the same time, I do stress that it will not be difficult to regain a top four position.

"But we need to work, work hard and see that a consistent level of work is done in the 70 minutes that India plays on the pitch," was Rajinder's way of saying India would go all out to prove to the world that they are not also-rans but are steadily and surely battling their way up.

But at the same time, the coach does also say, "This is preparation time for the team. We are looking at the Asian Games and the 2004 Olympics," meaning don't expect miracles.

Says ace forward Dhanraj Pillay: "For us it is a matter of honour and prestige."

For Pakistan, too, it is a matter of honour and prestige. Nobody in their wildest dreams even thought that Pakistan would lose to New Zealand in the Commonwealth Games semi-final and that too by a 1-7 margin. It rattled Pakistan hockey and now the team, coached by former star player Tahir Zaman, wants compensation in the form of a Champions Trophy win.

Tahir is confident and a training session of the team showed enough fire not only in the side, but also in the sticks of experienced players like Kamran Ashraf and goalkeeper Ahmed Alam, who had all but retired after the 2002 World Cup.

World champions Germany and Olympic champions Holland start as favourites. Both teams have done enough after the World Cup to merit playing the final on September 8. And after the classy finish in the Rabobank Classic, where the Dutch hammered away at a field comprising India, Korea and Australia, one wouldn't be just a punter if one picks Holland as a likely winner.

At home, Germany are unbeatable, but the Dutch want to wipe out some memories of the 2002 World Cup, where they started with a bang, beating Germany in the league matches but ended up playing for the third-fourth positions with Korea, finally picking up the bronze.

One also can not afford to forget 2002 World Cup silver medallists Australia and 2000 Sydney Olympic silver medallists South Korea, both who are in the process of rebuilding for the Olympic Games.

The Aussies, coached by Barry Dancer, started their comeback process in right style by winning the Commonwealth Games with a tournament goal-ratio of 38-6 and every match won. In the process, they established a championship record of 20-1 against Barbados.