To then think of that team to turn Indian hockey’s fortunes around would have people laughing at you back then. But in Hobart, after expletives in Punjabi by coach Rajinder Singh for mistakes and then putting Netherlands out of the tournament, an Indian hockey team stood on a World Cup podium only for the second time after 1975.
It also brought some relief from the lingering pain from Sydney 2000. On both occasions, a year apart, it was ‘tears’, but in Hobart, the accompanying emotion was of joy.
One of the players among that champion 2001 junior India team on the podium was Viren Rasquinha.
“I think that was one of the best experiences I have had in my life,” said Rasquinha, who these days weaves the Olympic dreams for promising stars, as the Director and CEO of Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) — an organisation that supports Indian athletes in their quest for glory at the Games.
If you think that the Hyderabad camp experience is one thing he would want to change in that Junior World Cup journey, then you are mistaken. Rasquinha offered a fresh perspective to that, when he rolled the clock back to 2001.
“When you look back at those times, I think the times when you had no money and no facilities were actually ones that bring back the best memories,” said the former Indian central midfielder, who also went on to captain India.
“Yes, the facilities were so bad, the food was so bad. Everything was bad — the ground to train on, the running area for endurance training. The toilets were pathetic. But the funny thing is at that point of time, none of us felt that way, because we were just embarking on our careers and hungry to do something for the country.” Rasquinha told TimesofIndia.com.
(Photo Courtesy: Viren Rasquinha)
RAJINDER THE COACH
Rajinder was one big reason why the players overcame such shabby training conditions and then turned their campaign around from losing to Australia (1-2) and then knocking out Netherlands (4-3), beating Germany (3-2) in the semis and finishing in style by humbling Argentina (6-1) in the final.
“Rajinder did a superb job in keeping the team together, motivating the team, ensuring that we enjoyed our hockey,” said Rasquinha. “He created a great environment in the team. I have to hand it to him.
“I think one thing about Rajinder was that he was always positive, always encouraging. His man-management skills were excellent. He knew when to use the ‘danda policy’ (stick) and when to be a friend and put an arm around the player.
The “danda policy” was one that players dreaded. Not that he would hit a player, but one where the Punjabi in him came out all guns blazing. Now, twenty years later, the players can fondly laugh about it, but not back in 2001 though.
“Whenever he was happy, he would speak in Hindi and English. And when angry, he would speak in Punjabi, and only gaalees (abuses),” Rasquinha, who lives in Mumbai, recalled with a smile.
Viren also went on to share a small anecdote, not from the 2001 campaign but a little later, when Rajinder was in charge of the senior men’s team.
“I think we were playing a four-nation tournament in Australia. It was in 2002 or 2003. We were playing South Korea. At halftime, we were down 0-2 and played terribly in the first half. We came into the dressing room and got s**t-abused by him (Rajinder) in full Punjabi ‘gaalees’ at his best. We came out for the second half and won the match 3-2, scoring three goals in 15 minutes.
“I loved the guy. In his own way, he was very unique,” said Rasquinha on a nostalgic note.
As the tournament progressed in Hobart, India became the team to envy. Jugraj was on the top of his game as India’s first original drag-flicker. Devesh Chauhan in goal was pulling off ‘superman’ saves and Deepak Thakur’s poaching skills in the circle had the ‘midas touch’.
It was little surprise then that Chauhan was named the ‘Goalkeeper of the Tournament’ and Thakur remained the top scorer.
Recalling those names took Rasquinha down memory lane.
“When I look back, what a team that was! In the goal, we had Devesh Chauhan and Bharat Chhetri. In defence we had Jugraj and Kanwalpreet Singh. In the midfield there was Bimal Lakra, Vikram Pillay, myself, Ignace Tirkey and Praboth Tirkey. The forward-line had Bipin Fernandez, Arjun Halappa, Gagan Ajit Singh, Deepak Thakur, Prabjot Singh, Inderjeet Chadha, Rajpal Singh.
“Jugraj was the main drag-flicker in the team. He was in prime form in the junior World Cup. Deepak Thakur, I remember, was the main scorer for us. I think 13 members of that squad graduated to the senior team almost immediately,” the 41-year-old further told TimesofIndia.com.
‘Most of those names went on to be part of one of the hockey classics that unfolded at the 2007 Champions Trophy, where India came back from the dead against archrivals Pakistan to script a fairytale turnaround and won 7-4.
But in 2001, when Rajinder’s boys landed in Hobart, the likes of Gagan, Rajpal, Rasquinha, Halappa and so on had little clue that they would go on to become India’s poster boys two weeks later. In fact, the touchdown in Hobart gave them a cultural shock of sorts.
“Hobart is a very small city. When we came out of the airport, we actually thought there was some ‘bannd’ (closure) or something. We landed around 4 pm in the evening. There (then in Hobart), you saw one car in five minutes, no one on the road. And for me coming from Mumbai where there are so many people on the roads, it was so strange,” Rasquinha remembered.
Rasquinha continued, recalling minute details from that memorable trip.
“Hobart is in the mountains. The weather during the World Cup was very treacherous. It was going from cold to hot to rainy in the span of a few hours. Sometimes it was so cold and windy that for those who were sitting on the bench, I remember, we had tons of blankets. First of all you were wet with (playing in) the rain, and then when you came and sat on the bench, you cooled down very quickly. The wind was blowing like anything.”
INDIA HAD THE LAST ‘LAUGH’
The 1-2 defeat against Australia had hit India hard, so much that it put Rajinder’s boys on the brink of elimination.
“We were almost eliminated when we lost to Australia. I remember we beat Holland in one of the most crucial league matches. We had to win that game, were leading 4-3 and then the final hooter sounded. But Holland got a penalty corner (just before that). They had scored off the three previous penalty corners they got in the match. So Ignace and I rushed out (of the post) with our bodies on the line. It was just madness.”
But there’s a backstory to that last-minute effort against the Dutch.
It happened during a morning walk, and Rasquinha narrated it almost as if the player in him was coming out punching the air.
“Holland were staying in a five-star hotel and we were at a small motel. One morning, we came out for a walk. The Dutch players were also going for a walk past our motel. They were laughing at us.
“So it felt really nice to beat them 4-3 and put them out of the tournament.”