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Vol. XXXIII No. 9, August 16-31, 2023

Hockey at its best, and Chennai fans loved it

-- by S.R. Suryanarayan

The Indian team came, saw, and conquered! It was a moment that will long remain etched in the minds of all those who were witness to the grand spectacle that unfolded at the revamped Mayor Radhakrishnan stadium. India came back from a 1-3 down situation to beat Malaysia 4-3 and lifted the Asian Champions trophy for a record fourth time in the history of this tournament. It was an enthralling final that had the packed stadium on its toes right from the start until the very last second. It was a contest that had everything – speed, spills, and skills in ample measure, much like a puzzle that culminated in a dramatic resolution at the last minute, and in just the way the fans would have wanted! Suffice it to say, the heart-stopping entertainment was absolutely worth it thanks to the end result. Scenes of joyous celebrations exploded at the stadium, with many spectators proudly holding aloft the Indian flags they had brought with them.

For many old-timers, the occasion brought back memories of a similar event 16 years ago in the Asia Cup tournament, where India trounced Korea in a high-scoring final, sparking a sporting frenzy in the very same stadium. But India had then established supremacy quite early on in the league. The current story at the same venue – now sporting a new look with a fresh artificial surface to boot – was different. Who would have thought that a team which was swamped in the league stage by the home team would rise to deliver such shocks in the most important match of the tournament? Not until the last quarter did the equation change. A little over four years ago in the Jakarta Asian Games, Malaysia – no longer a pushover team – had denied India progress beyond the semi-final, edging it out via the penalties. India had to be content with the bronze then and Malaysia took the silver.

The Indian team – winners of the 2023 Asian Championship. Picture courtesy: The Hindu.

Were we facing a similar situation, was what ardent fans brooded on; but with some constructive and purposeful hockey by the Indian players, everything changed. The fightback worked and the men came up with a ‘famous win’, as one commentator said in the moment of excitement. Harmanpreet Singh, Akashdeep, Manpreet, and Co managed it for India. Local hero Selvam Karthi deserves special mention – he not only ignited the attack with his dashes, sure-shot passes, and interceptions but also kept the Chennai crowd in high spirits throughout the match. In the end, what greater thrill could this Ariyalur boy have asked for than getting adjudged the ‘Best Young Player of the Tournament’? As the talented young man was to say in response to the honour he received, “the Asian Games and Olympics” are now his next targets. The first player from Tamil Nadu to break into the national side in over a decade, Karthi was confidence personified.

Overall, this was a near fortnight-long tournament that had everything that a hockey fan would have asked for. Six of the best Asian teams were in attendance – the Asian Games champion Japan, the defending champion Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, and China besides host India. Usually in any sporting competition, the presence of Pakistan, considering the political scenario, adds an extra interest. An India-Pakistan match always brings out emotions like no other contest and this instance was no exception. Only, the Chennai crowd – sportsmanly to the last spectator – loved the hockey displayed by the teams a lot more. The good effort was amply rewarded with rounds of enthusiastic applause and this included Pakistan’s forays into the Indian end too. India was a far superior side to Pakistan this time and the action on the turf proved that. Pakistan was unable to come into the top four, finishing off with the league phase.

Finally, no praise can be high enough for the encouragement that the Tamil Nadu Government had injected to ensure that the event was held in Chennai and in a big way. The government provided a Rs 16 crore revamp of the MRK stadium. It has fresh turf, similar to that at the Paris Olympics next year. There were other development works too. Once a regular venue for international hockey events, Chennai needs to host more such events to retain its rich hockey culture and inspire the youth to sporting activities. The Asian Champions trophy – coming as it does in the wake of the Squash World Cup and the Chess Olympiad held earlier in the city – is yet another testimony to the interest the State Government has in sports development. The icing on the cake this time around, was the electrifying Indian triumph.

Now, the sights will turn from our city to Huangzhou, China, where the Asian Games will be held next month. May the fortunes of Indian hockey continue to rise will be the silent prayer and wish on the lips of every fan.

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