When Ashish Ballal stooped on the winners' podium to receive his gold medal today, he could well have thumbed his nose at Indian hockey officialdom which rubbished his goalkeeping skills just six months ago. Today, his two saves in the penalty shootout gave India a 5-3 victory.
The litany could go on and on.
But in their hour of glory, when Pillay and his team wept as the tricolour was hoisted and the brassband played the national anthem, one note was clear: this victory not merely ensures a direct entry to the Sydney Olympics but could mark a resurgence for Indian hockey.
For, it was a crackerof a final. The Indians lifted their game half a dozen notches above the normal, swarming the South Korean end of the field with panache seldom seen right through a game. The pace the Indians set was scorching but intelligent use of the basketball-like, rolling-substitution rule by coach M.K. Kaushik ensured that there were no inordinately tired players.
The golden moment which will be frozen in memory for time to come: Mukesh Kumar pushing the ball to the boards to give India the match. No sooner had it ended, goalkeeper Ballal, the hero of the final with two saves in the tie-breaker, let loose. ``I have proved these **** wrong. I am still the best in the country. I was dropped but I came back and these guys are a piece of ***,'' he said.
That was quite understandable because Ballal was the villian till yesterday, cast aside as unfit and past his prime. Soon after extra time ended, Ballal took his helmet off and was walking towards the bench for the dead-ball expert AB Subbaiah to take his place as thathad been the case during tie-breaker situations. Coach Kaushik waved him back and the rest was there for all to see.
The 4-2 win in the tie-breaker after the teams ended 1-1 after 70 minutes of regulation time and 15 minutes of extra time was all the more heartening because the crucial tip regarding the Koreans' tie-breaker strategy came from Pakistan goalkeeper Muhammad Qasim.
Assistant coach Mir Ranjan Negi, his eyes brimming with tears and a voice choked with emotion, did not forget the help from Qasim in his hour of glory. ``He told us that the Koreans tend to push on the right, and this tip helped Ballal to make the first save. Of course, I am not taking away any credit from Ballal, for, it was his day,'' said Negi.
The tip arose from having watched the Koreans in the Champions Trophy where they beat Pakistan 4-3 in the preliminary league. Indeed, it had to be Ballal who brought off two decisive savesfirst when he leapt high to his right to block Yoo Moon Ki's attempt with the second stroke andthen padded up to a weak try by Jung Jin Dong with the fourth.
Well, he wouldn't have forgotten the treatment he received two years ago when he was forced to walk out of the World Cup preparatory camp in Chennai in tears and drove some 350 kilometres through the night to his home in Bangalore. Today, he didn't cry but used the A hockey gold for strongest word to anyone who cared to listen.
The other Indian conversions in the tie-breaker came through Ramandeep Singh, Mohammed Riaz and Baljit Singh Dhillon in that order. There was just a hiccup when Dhillon's strong push to the roof, struck the underside of the crosspiece and went in.
For the Koreans, who threatened no end, Yee Woon Kon and Song Seung-Tae came good in the tie-breaker. Before the dramatic tie-breaker, there was plenty of action. The Koreans jumped into the lead in the sixth minute when Yeo Woon Kon flick-pushed a penalty corner, about waist-high to Ballal's left.
But past the 22nd minute, India caught up on a rebound by skipper DhanrajPillay who was lying in wait for just the chance as he flicked the ball over the goalkeeper who had blocked a drive by Dhillon.
Thereafter, the match swung from end to end and the Indians, having shrugged off a lethargic start, found their feet and matched the Koreans move for move. In fact, India had the best of chances, but Pillay twice failed to score from close. India made timely substitutions which helped them to keep pace. Mukesh Kumar, Sabu Varkey, Sandeep Somesh and Md Riaz were given a breather at the right moment and, for once the roll-in substitution rule was put to good effect. The Koreans had few chances from open play and their dependence on penalty corners was their undoing, as the Indians defended extremely well. Ramandeep (tiwce) and Anil Aldrin picked up the rebounds and cleared to deny the Koreans.
In fact, India could have wrapped up the match during regulation period itself had they not bungled the chances for which they nearly paid the penalty. For, towards the close, theyneedlessly fell on the defensive and the Koreans applied tremendous pressure, especially during the extra-time when they forced three penalty corners, but could not convert any. India seemed to be riding their luck.
In the final analysis, all credit must go to India's defence where the half-backs and the full-backs played their hearts out. Special mention must be made of young Dilip Tirkey who had another outstanding match, and there were the two wing half-backs, Ramandeep and Baljit Singh Saini who worked away busily. However, as just about every player commented, it was a glorious team effort against a very attacking side.
The success was all about character and courage, and not so much the technicalities. For, in their most severe test of nerves, the Indians triumphed while the Koeans gave in to pressure in the tie-breaker.
Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.