India-Pakistan hockey match, encounter of an emotional kind (Preview of India's group)

Last Updated: Mon, Feb 22, 2010 12:50 hrs

Men's Hockey World Cup here this coming Sunday. Up first are Pakistan on the opening day of the fortnight-long extravaganza, followed by a face-off with Australia 48 hours later.

The two matches carry a lot of significance, not just in the context of India's fate in the tournament but the profile of the sport in the country.

The recent shenanigans over payments, captaincy and the charity game in Chandigarh have been avoidable distractions on the lead up to and preparations for the World Cup. In a way, history seems to have repeated.

In the past, India's run-up to this quadrennial event has been marked by controversies almost every single time by way of disputes over selections, captaincy or such issues that the country's short-sighted administrators failed to foresee, much less solve to everyone's satisfaction.

This time around, India would be going in blind, as it were, without the benefit of playing any top-level international matches in the past year. As such, coach Jose Brasa's theories, strategies, permutations and combinations, remain largely untested. The fear is that these factors could well influence India's showing.

India's game against Pakistan on the opening night will no doubt generate passion and emotion largely influenced by the political relationship between the neighbouring nations. The scenario today is not much different from when the teams met at this very venue in the 1982 Asian Games final that Pakistan won 7-1.

Although the two sides have played each other many times since then on either side of the border, the stakes have never been as high as they are now. In the event, the pressure will be on both teams whose character, unity and mental strength will be put to the test.

Man-to-man, there is not much to separate the two, but one suspects that penalty corner and set-piece play could influence the outcome. Pakistan have an ace in the world's premier drag-flicker Sohail Abbas while India have three penalty corner specialists including Sandeep Singh. But India's best bet would be to strike early and hard through field goals, and more important, sustain the momentum through the 70 minutes.

It needs no super coach to point out that Pakistan's weakest link is their deep defence and that could well be the key India could turn to open the door to success. But then, historically, Indian teams have been a 65-minute outfit that flagged and fumbled in the dying moments to concede goals that turned a possible victory into defeat.

Much of India's hopes hinge on the players' ability to stand up to the pressure and of course, their fitness level that remains a question mark in the absence of quality international matches in recent weeks.

Pakistan enjoy a decidedly superior World Cup record having won the tournament four times, the last being in 1994. In comparison, India's only Cup triumph was in 1975 after which they have finished in the 5-8 positions only twice - 1982 and 1994. They ended 12th in 1986 and only marginally better in 2002 (10th) and 2006 (11th).

The two teams are meeting in the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Pakistan in World Cup (11 appearances): Winners in 1971, 1978, 1982, 1994; second in 1975, 1990; fourth in 1973; fifth in 1998, 2002; sixth in 2006; 11th in 1986.

India in World Cup (11 appearances): Winners in 1975; 3rd in 1971; 2nd in 1973; sixth in 1978; fifth in 1982, 1994; 12th in 1986; 10th in 1990, 2002; ninth in 1998, 11th in 2006.

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