Live everyone else, I am excited by the approaching India-Pakistan contest in the Hero Honda FIH World Cup 2010 at the Maj. Dhyan Chand National Stadium in Delhi. It has been a little over six years since I sat in the packed stands and cheered a 3-1 India victory in the Afro-Asian Games final in my home town, Hyderabad. The goalless draw that I saw the teams play out at the Morris Brown College ground in Atlanta at the 1996 Olympic Games has faded into the recesses.
For someone who has found the sporting rivalry between the two neighbours endearing, I cannot help think of how India will have to be mentally strong to face the twin pressures that bear down on the team in the World Cup competition. It is known to be among the slow starters in the big competitions and, to make it doubly challenging, the opening game is with Pakistan.
May be it is just a myth that India starts slowly but let us look at the last two major events for the Indian team. India got off to a 2-2 draw with New Zealand in the Champions Challenge in Argentina in December. Earlier, in the Asia Cup in May 2009, despite goals from Prabhjot Singh and Rajpal Singh, the team lost 2-3 to – hold your breath – Pakistan.
It does look like the home team has approached its two warm up games against Argentina and the Netherlands as part of a big tournament rather than as practice matches. I was happy with the intensity that we saw in the squad when it took on and beat the Dutch 2-1 in a practice game a couple of evenings earlier.
I have always believed that it is mental strength that makes the difference between champions and also-rans and it was but natural that when I got to talk one of the Indian team’s stars, Deepak Thakur, our conversation focused mainly on the team’s mental preparations for the big game that lies ahead.
Apparently, the team has kept things simple. It has had some sessions with a psychologist. But more importantly the events away from the hockey pitch have brought the players together like little else could have. “Above all, we have a solid coach (Jose Brasa) who is very good at keeping us motivated,” Deepak Thakur said.
“We have put behind us the defeats by Pakistan in the Asia Cup in Malaysia and the Champions Challenge in Argentina,” he said. “We realise that there is no point in letting thoughts of such reverses linger in our minds. We know our strengths and are focussed on bringing them to the fore when we get on the pitch for the opening game.”
Indeed, as far as the opening game is concerned, mind games have already begun. There has been of talk about how drag-flickers Sohail Abbas and Sandeep Singh will be key performers. And how Indian goalkeeper Adrian d’Souza exudes confidence that he can measure up to the challenge posed by the world’s most prolific goal scorer Sohail Abbas’ exceptional skills.
Typical of players of an era gone by, the greybeards talk of how the intensity in contemporary India-Pakistan matches is less than in the past. It is an unfair comment given that millions of people watch the game on television and sit in judgment now more than ever. I believe that any India-Pakistan sporting contest brings along immense stress.
And yes, even if I am not looking beyond India’s inaugural match with Pakistan, I am excited at being able to watch my first World Cup hockey competition.
This article was written for www.stick2hockey.com and appeared on that wonderful website.