When custodian Ballal shaped a similar victory in Bangkok

Flashback

 When India’s R Sreejesh produced heroic saves in the penalty shoot-out to help India get the gold against Pakistan in the Asian Games final at Incheon on Thursday, the mind recalled the heroics of another goalkeeper who produced more stunning feats 16 years ago. 

Ashish Ballal, who came up with two stunning saves in the penalty shootout when India beat South Korea in the 1998 Asiad final (it finished 4-2 in a penalty shoot-out after the match ended 1-1 aet), fondly recalled the moment with Deccan Herald.

“We were all ecstatic,” he says with pride in his voice. “When we won it, it was our first gold in 32 years and we were all delighted.” 

Did he think that India would have to wait another 16 years before occupying the top step of the podium? 

“Put it this way: The last one came after 32 years... this one has come after only 16 years so there is definitely an improvement.” 

The strands which link both the gold-medal winning teams are so thin that you struggle for similarities. MK Kaushik, who was the chief coach back then, is part of the coaching set-up while the scores in the final are remarkably similar. But beyond that, hockey as we knew it back then has undergone a sea change. 

Matches were played over two halves of 35 minutes each, penalty shootouts were decided from the penalty spot and there was a period of extra-time before the shootout unfolded and, if needed, sudden death. While India were one of the first countries to adapt to a more modern version of the sport through the Premier Hockey League in 2005, the FIH, till recently, by and large stuck to a rigid template. 

Ballal, attributes India’s experience of playing in the modern version of a penalty shootout as a main reason for India’s victory. The modern penalty shoot-out is one where the striker starts dribbling at the goalkeeper from a distance of 25 yards and has to hit the target within eight seconds.

“The new shootout format is more favourable to us Indians,” Ballal says. “We have had more experience of playing in this format since the days of Premier Hockey League and that was a key thing today,” he observes.

“Not only that but the shorter duration of the match also helped us because we have been used to this system for a long time thanks to PHL and HIL.” 

Ballal, an Arjuna award winner in 1997, also mentions that the new format helps the goalkeepers more than the attackers. “In the earlier days, even though you could watch all those videos of attackers all you could do was to pray to god that you dive the right way. But now it is very different,” he points out. “The goalkeeper gets to come forward and cover his angles and I would say it is now 50-50. Back when I was in goal, it was more 70-30 in favour of the attackers.”  Ballal feels the victory would serve as a catalyst for change. “This victory could serve as a catalyst for change,” he says with conviction in his voice. “It will allow budding hockey players to come up through the system which has not been happening for sometime.” 

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