It was a case of so near and so far for the Indian men’s junior hockey team that reached the final of the 1997 Junior Men’s Hockey World Cup at Milton Keynes, England, where they went down fighting to Australia 2-3. Faltering at the final hurdle must have been more than heartbreak for the Baljit Singh Saini-led Indian junior side. Four years later, the Gagan Ajit Singh-led Indian junior team ensured there was no repeat of what happened in the 1997 edition final. India turned the 2001 Junior Men’s Hockey World Cup held at Hobart, Australia into a no-contest annihilating Argentina 6-1, which till date remains the biggest victory margin in a Junior World Cup final.
Rajinder Singh (Senior), the coach of the Indian junior team that cornered glory at Hobart, recalls how the Indian team endured anxious moments ahead of its semifinal qualification that hinged on various permutations and combinations. “I still remember Argentina had to beat Australia in their last second-round league tie for India to harbour any semifinal hopes provided we beat the Netherlands in our last tie. Argentina took the lead in the first half and Australia equalised in the closing stages – a draw would have thrown us out of semifinal contention. All the players were watching the last thirty minutes of that match and fervently praying – some of them walked away from the venue unable to take the tension of watching it. Juan Garreta scored for Argentina with a few seconds remaining for the final hooter and we heaved a sigh of relief knowing we are in semifinal contention,” he gets excited tracing the highs of 2001 in a chat with Hockey Passion.
The 63-year-old former India fullback feels that the Hobart glory inculcated a sense-of self-belief into Indian hockey. “The 2001 Junior Men’s Hockey World Cup triumph was the turning point of Indian hockey – it broke a barricade because we were earlier finishing second, third, fifth. Many of the players went on to play in the senior team and some of them represented in Olympics as well,” he says.
Rajinder, who also served as the senior men’s team coach for a lengthy period, said the weather conditions at the Tasmania Hockey Center made it exceedingly challenging. “The weather conditions were never favourable for us – we used to wrap ourselves with blankets and sip coffee frequently to cope with the chilly conditions,” he recounts.
The 2001 Junior Men’s Hockey World Cup-winning coach says the combination of field goals as well as short corner goals was a big factor in the Indian team scripting glory. “Our forwardline was in full cry – the likes of Deepak Thakur, Prabhojt Singh, Gagan Ajit Singh scored consistently while the duo of Jugraj Singh and Kanwalpreet Singh were firing home their penalty corners when it mattered.”
Rajinder, who played for India from 1976 to 1983 and famously remembered for scoring a hat-trick in the famous come-from-behind 5-4 win over arch-rivals Pakistan in the 1982 Champions Trophy at Amstelveen, elaborates on the pre-final match meeting between the two teams. “A day before the India-Argentina final match captains and coaches of both teams met and the Junior World Cup Trophy was there in the room where we met. Captain Gagan Ajit Singh wanted to touch the trophy and I told him that we don’t have to touch the trophy – let us win the final and take the trophy home,” he concludes.