The Hockey Interview with AB Subbaiah
Ours is one of the most successful hockey teams in the world with eight Olympic golds; but when it comes to the World Cups, our returns haven't been as great. SportsCafe, in its mini-series 'The Hockey Interview' tries to go back in time and talk to former World Cuppers to know what went wrong.
1994 Men's Hockey World Cup - Sydney
India Captain - Jude Felix
India Coach - Cedric D'Souza
India Position - 5th
India vs South Korea 2-0
India vs Netherlands 2-4
India vs Germany 1-2
India vs South Africa 2-2
India vs Belgium 4-2
India vs Argentina 2-2 (4-1)
India vs England 1-0
For most Indians who grew up in the 1990s and 2000s, hockey wasn't the most popular sport to follow. That was the time, sports for any kid, or for that matter, even a grown-up meant keeping a track of the score from an India-Pakistan cricket match in Sharjah and following Sachin Tendulkar's innings closely. But that was the time a lot happened in Indian hockey too; In 1994, our team managed to produce their best-ever result in a World Cup, barring the 70s, where we finished thrice on the podium. And that fifth-place finish at Sydney hasn't been bettered to date.
Post the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, where the team had finished seventh, a complete overhaul was done, and by the time the next World Cup arrived, only six players from the previous team could find a place in coach Cedric D'Souza's unit, with Jude Felix as the skipper. The changes were for everyone to see as India snapped their ignominious streak of losing their opening encounters, by beating South Korea 2-0.
Having started well in the tournament, suddenly Indians found themselves wanting on the turf losing their matches against the Netherlands and Germany while playing out a draw versus minnows South Africa. Despite that, the team showed their steel and registered a stupendous 4-2 win over Belgium, with their hopes of making the semis, hanging by a thin thread. But Korea's loss to Germany sealed India's fate, and we could not move into the last four. Playing the classification matches, is really where the team showed sparks of brilliance, hammering Argentina 4-1 in penalties, and winning over England 1-0.
That is where Team India found its new hero in goalkeeper AB Subbaiah, who saved three penalty strokes against Argentina, in a shootout. Although the young keeper specialised in making shootout saves, but taking into account the enormity of the occasion, it was no less than magical. "If I may say, I was an expert in the penalty strokes and the tie-breakers. In my career, India faced eight tie-breakers; against Germany, Australia, England, and many other teams, but we lost only once, that too against South Korea. It's a hard skill to specialise in, but that was my calling, and did it for my country.
"I think what worked for me in that tournament was my anticipation. Argentina had good penalty specialists, and so did England, but we did manage to beat them. It was a moment, too good to be true for me as well as the team. If we look at the teams we beat, they had all done really well coming into the tournament. So to get past them was a huge statement by the team," Subbaiah told SportsCafe in an exclusive chat.
But the members of that team still rue the missed chance of making it to the semi-finals, which in all likelihood was a possibility. That match against Germany, where we were leading 1-0, is a sore spot for many hockey fans across the country. If only that long pass by Shakeel Ahmed near the half-line was not intercepted, things would have been different, who know, India could have finished on the podium too.
"The Germans capitalised on the error in that match. That was one golden chance for us, but we lost. Even in the match against South Africa, we should have won, but perhaps were slack in our approach. What also hurt us at that time was the unavailability of Sabu Varkey, who was in top form before the tournament, but maybe lost his mojo by the time the World Cup arrived. Mukesh Kumar, Dhanraj Pillay, and Sabu used to be our right wing and centre forward. Sabu as right in, Mukesh right out, and Dhanraj as a center forward were lightning quick and a terror for the opposition. But the trio collectively didn't click in the tournament, unfortunately," Subbaiah added.
Loss withstanding, the team qualified for the Champions Trophy, where only the top six would go through. Later in the same year, India went on to win the silver at the Asian Games, where the team only lost one match, the final. "At that time, finishing 5th was commendable since that meant we had qualified for the Champions Trophy. So, on one hand, we were happy, but we also felt, we could have reached greater heights with all the youngsters coming in, and the coach Cedric bringing in new ways of coaching," he concluded.