Top finishers a class apart

Germany, Australia and Netherlands deservedly captured the top three positions in the hockey world cup in Kuala Lumpur.

updated: February 25, 2007 09:27 IST
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Kuala Lumpur:

It needed no crystal ball to predict the top three finishers even before a single whistle was blown at World Cup 2002. Playing well is the domain of many. However, playing well when it really matters is the domain of a few. Germany, Australia and Netherlands emphasized this once again at Kuala Lumpur and deservedly captured the top three positions. Two decades have seen hockey transform and evolve into a completely different ball game, but the top echelon has remained unchanged. There have been few better examples of ruthless professionalism and unflinching work ethic. At Kuala Lumpur the threat did persist. Asian giants Korea and Pakistan till the very end appeared the most likely to succeed in their bid to dislodge the top three. But when in a corner, the big three were able to pull out that extra bit of pace, a tucked away ploy and of course the killer punch. Korea came closest to causing a major upset when they fought toe-to-toe with Germany in the semi-finals and later let Netherlands off the hook after having them on the ropes for most part of the bronze medal clash. Deprived of a bronze by a last gasp equalizer and a golden goal, Korea showed signs of establishing a permanent place in the top echelons of world hockey. Pakistan rode on the guile of the mercurial Shahbaz, a ferocious half-line and some scorching penalty corner conversions. In the face of some controversial umpiring decisions at critical times in the game against Germany, both teams maintained their composure on the field though there remained a residue and an unfortunate suspicion of bias. A few matches in World Cup 2002 would stay etched in memory. The pool match between Germany and Netherlands which witnessed breathtaking pace, both teams running at each other for the entire duration of the game and displaying skills of sublime variety. The semi-final between Australia and Netherlands also set up rip-roaring stuff, Netherlands finding the typically open hockey of Australia as well as the weather too hot to handle. Both matches epitomized the game as it exists in its present avatar - quick ball-rotation in defence, lightning shift from defence into attack and dribbling skills at maximum speed. The propensity to strike at goal from any angle, once inside the circle, was also in evidence. The final match too saw an exciting display of speed - Germany keeping their best for the end, outmanoeuvering Australia in the second half. The 'no off-side' rule was introduced five years ago to facilitate better flow and a glut of goals. Whether the end objective has been met remains a matter of debate but this rule has certainly influenced the tactical outlook of teams. It has in fact encouraged an over-cautious approach and teams invariably push as many players as possible behind the ball in defence. A defensive wall in front of the circle, reminiscent of soccer, makes the entry into the circle by dribbling extremely difficult. Artistic build-up through stick skills and short passes have therefore made way for long, sharp hits into the circle searching for a deflection. From inside the circle too, the strike across the face of the goal to the far post and out of the reach of the goalkeeper for a colleague to deflect home has become a very effective route to a goal. The World Cup winner for Germany also came off such a move, with Oliver Domke sliding in to slot home. The grace and languid elegance of the weaving dribble was only fleetingly visible from players like Shahbaz, certainly a loss for hockey. Australia's Troy Elder, the Player of the Tournament, had some stiff competition from some other outstanding performers. His team mate Brent Livermore was just as outstanding in the central mid-fielder's role. Top scorer Jorge Lombi of Argentina proved that age has not dulled his flair, as was the case with the exceptionally gifted Shahbaz Ahmed, whose periodic bursts of stick work kept Pakistan in contention and gave the crowd great thrill. Tien De Nooijer, the attacking mid-fielder from Netherlands, was just as pleasing and bore a lot of the workload for his team. Jamie Dwyer, the young forward from Australia, impressed with his dash and ability to strike at goal. Wasim Ahmed, the diminutive left-half of Pakistan has matured into an attacking left-half and displayed poise even in tense situations. For leadership and field presence, Florian Kunz stood tall in Germany's deep defence though he may not have been outstanding at all times. Coaches Bernhard Peters of Germany, Barry Dancer of Australia and Paul Lissek, the coach of Malaysia, impressed with the handling of their teams. India will have to make a paradigm shift in this area if they have to seriously offer a challenge. (PTI)