December 17, 1998 – Kasetsart University Stadium, Bangkok will always remain an important day for Indian hockey – it was when the national men’s hockey team had clinched the Asian Games gold medal at Bangkok after a hiatus of 32 years – their last Asiad gold (which was their first-ever Asiad gold) came at the 1966 Asian Games, which was also held at Bangkok. In an edge-of-the-seat clash India had nosed out South Korea 5-3 in a nerve-jangling tie-breaker after both teams were locked 1-1 after regulation time and extra time. And one man who played a pivotal role in getting Indian on top of the podium at the Bangkok Asian Games was goalkeeper Ashish Ballal.
The Indian shot-stopper pulled off two magnificent two saves even all his team-mates converted their strokes to cap off a memorable gold-winning performance. “It was a tight game from the outset. The Koreans had scored an early goal but we equalised off a short corner opportunity and the deadlock continued into the second half and extra time before tie-breaker was applied,” recalls Ballal, who can take a lot of the credit for his tie-breaker heroics.
The feisty goalkeeper was confidence-personified going into the tie-breaker. “Our coach late MK Kaushik asked me during the small break after extra time period of play was over whether I would be keen to stand in the tie-breaker, and I told him I will get him the gold. I have watched quite a few videos of the Koreans executing penalty strokes in some matches and was well aware about their strong points. It really helped as I knew what to expect from them and was able to help my team win the gold medal. It was for the first time in Asian Games all Indian players (Ramandeep Singh, Baljit Dhillon, Mohammed Riaz and Mukesh Kumar) had converted in the tie-breaker,” gushes the Bengaluru-based goalkeeper.
Employed with Air India, Ballal attributed the Bangkok Asiad success to coach Kashik. “Our Asian Games side was packed with stars and former captains and credit goes to Kaushik for being able to get the best of the team. As a coach he was a tough taskmaster but one who would always stand for the players. He was tough on the player but was always there to comfort if any player was feeling down or low. The gold win was also special because it helped us secure direct berth for the 2000 Sydney Olympics,” he reminisces.