Monday, March 10, 2008

India fail to qualify after 80 years

Great Britain’s captain Ben Hawes holds the trophy after winning the final
Great Britain’s captain Ben Hawes holds the trophy after winning the final. — Reuters photo

Santiago, March 10
Indian hockey today sunk into its darkest pit of despair as the men’s team failed to qualify for the Olympics for the first time in 80 years following a shocking 0-2 defeat against Britain in the final of the qualifying tournament here.

Faced with a do-or-die battle, India’s Olympic dream came down crashing as Barry Middleton (4th minute) and Richard Mantell (10th) scored for Britain in the nerve-wracking final at the Prince of Wales Country Club. With this win, England qualified for the Beijing Olympics.

Eight times gold medallist India thus failed to make it to the Olympics for the first time since their debut in 1928, adding an ignominious chapter to the game’s history which has seen more lows than highs in recent times.

The setback prompted coach Joaquim Carvalho to step down along with his support staff.

While Britain celebrated to the accompaniment of the song “We are the Champions”, the Indian players, heads bowed and shoulders slumped, could only watch the jubilant scenes of a team that played smarter, if not better, hockey.

Britain showed a lot of steel in dealing with the massive pressure they were subjected to by the Indian forwards. The difference was that Britain, who had beaten India 3-2 in the league, capitalised on the two early chances that came their way, while the Indians did not.

India could never really settle down and the two yellow cards to their key players, midfielder Sardara Singh and forward Prabhjot Singh, filled their cup of woes.

India also blew five penalty corners with neither Ramachandra Raghunath, with his drag-flicks, nor Dilip Tirkey, with his direct hits, able to convert. In fact, their set-piece drill in the second-half was rather pathetic, as the ball was not even stopped cleanly.

Britain’s first-half tactics were fairly obvious and that was to seize the early initiative. Two goals within the first 10 minutes put them firmly in front while pushing India on the back foot.

While Britain’s performance was slick and sure, the Indians struggled to get going. The two teams were a study in contrast with Britain sticking to basics of close marking, quick release and positional play.

In contrast, India seemed to run out of ideas and there was predictability in their attacks with the long balls to the wings in much use.

Middleton scrambled the ball in from a Ashley Jackson pass with the Indian defence caught square in the very fourth minute and then Richard Mantell drag-flicked a 10th minute penalty corner to put Britain on top.

India did knit together a few moves, but at the finish it was the same old tale of wrong passes and at times, too much of individual play.

With time ticking by, India made desperate attempts force a penalty corner and finally succeeded in the 31st minute. But Raghunath failed to beat goal keeper Alistair McGregor. A little earlier, Sardara was sent out with two green cards in the 26th minute and his absence meant another round of reshuffling that affected the Indian team balance.

In between the Indian attacks, Britain squeezed a couple of more raids and nearly scored twice with Jackson and then Tindall shooting wide of target.

On resumption, the Indians attacked with some urgency but they suffered a setback when Prabhjot was sent out with a yellow card suspension for deliberate stick-check. Yet again, it limited India’s options while leaving a huge hole in the frontline.

India’s persistence fetched them their second penalty corner in the 47th minute, but goalkeeper McGregor easily blocked Dilip Tirkey’s direct hit.

Seven minutes later, India forced three penalty corners in quick succession, but twice Ignace Tirkey and then Shivendra Singh failed to stop the ball. Worse still, Ignace limped off the field after being struck on the knee by the British charger.

At the other end, goalkeeper Baljit Singh kept India in the game with some good saves as Britain wasted three penalty corners.

Even as the Indians grew in desperation, Britain kept their composure to survive the vital final moments of a match that barely rose to expectations in terms of quality, though did not lack intensity and passion. — PTI

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