'Winning 2001 junior hockey World Cup changed our lives'

The Indian junior hockey team greeted in New Delhi upon arrival from Hobart in 2001, when they won the 7th Junior World Cup after beating Argentina 6-1 in the final. AFP PHOTO/PRAKASH SINGH

2001 was a watershed year for Indian hockey. India won the junior World Cup - held in Hobart, Australia - for the first, and only, time. The closest the country has come to the title since then was a fourth-place finish in 2005.

Ahead of India's final against Belgium on Sunday, here are some key members of the 2001 World Cup-winning side on their experience:

On the team and its preparations in the run-up:

Viren Rasquinha (Midfielder): We were pretty confident heading into the tournament. We had a very good team and we had excellent training sessions for a month and a half in Hyderabad.

I remember being in our hotel rooms in Hyderabad when we heard of the 9/11 attacks. We were stunned. We didn't know if the tour would go on since international travel looked difficult. Mercifully, it did.

For many of us, it was our first big junior-level tournament. We were just focused on our first pool stage since it was a complicated format with an initial league phase followed by top two teams advancing to the second group phase. We had a rudimentary set up: the place where we were put up wasn't great, the ground where we trained in Begumpet wasn't good either and the boys from the North hated the food there, but the mark of a wonderful team is its ability to tide over all challenges. That's what we did.

Gagan Ajit Singh (Captain): It was incredible to have led the Indian side to a historic win. We had a tough pre-tournament camp in Hyderabad and that set us up well. Every morning when we went for a run in Hobart, we took a route which would allow us a glimpse of the trophy, kept on display in a glass case in a showroom. It made our yearning for the title stronger.

Jugraj Singh (Defender): The place where we stayed in Hyderabad during the World Cup training camp was quite shabby. The food was horrible. When current FIH president and then national federation secretary Narinder Batra visited us, we explained our plight to him. He spoke to the hotel manager and paid from his pocket, requesting better food arrangements for the players.

It was a great team, a combination of youth and experience with most of the players having played alongside each other for a long time. While all the other teams stayed at plush hotels in Hobart, we were put up in a small motel, part of which was still under construction.

On the matches and the team's performance:

Viren: We were in for a culture shock when we landed in the thinly-populated town of Hobart. The roads were empty, a car passed by the motel only once every 15 minutes and coming from the crowd of India, we wondered if there was some sort of a bandh (strike) there.

"Every morning when we went for a run in Hobart, we took a route which would allow us a glimpse of the trophy, kept on display in a glass case in a showroom. It made our yearning for the title stronger."

The ground was picturesque, nestled between the mountains on one side and the sea on the other. In some matches, it was tough to grip the stick because of the freezing cold, made worse by the persistent rain.

In the initial phase, we had easy wins over Canada, Scotland and Spain. Winning our first match against Canada 5-0 helped settle nerves. We had a nightmare draw. In the second group phase, there were two pools of four teams each and Australia, Netherlands and Argentina were in our pool.

Surprisingly, favourites Australia and Netherlands went out and underdogs India and Argentina went through to the semis and eventually the finals. We had a bad start to the second pool stage - we drew with Argentina 2-2 and lost to Australia 2-1, so we were almost out of the tournament and needed not just to win our last match against Netherlands but also needed other results to go our way.

Luckily, Argentina beat Australia and Netherlands. We were leading the Dutch 4-3 and they needed just a draw to progress. Netherlands got a penalty corner towards the end and our semi-final spot was on the line. I was part of the line defending the short corner and that was possibly the most nerve-wracking moment of my entire career. Somehow we managed to save that penalty corner.

Our semi-final against reigning champions Germany was also tense. We led them 3-0 at half-time but they stormed back after the break. They had about 10 short corners and made it 3-2. We barely managed to keep them at bay. After those two matches, we felt like we had aged by 10 years.

Gagan: We started with an effortless win over Canada. We managed to dominate most of the other teams, except Australia, which was the only side we lost to during the entire tournament.

Jugraj: We had a tough encounter against Argentina and were on the verge of a loss, but managed to hold them to a draw, after which we lost to Australia.

After that defeat, we began to feel it was probably time for us to pack our bags. When we were warming up against Netherlands, we felt it was already all over. But we had underestimated ourselves.

After our win, I remember their coach remarking that the title now belonged to Germany (our next opponents) now that Netherlands, the only team capable of stopping them, were out of the tournament. German players, in fact, refused to shake hands with us after we beat them in the semis and most of them were biting their palms out of anger and frustration.

On the final against Argentina:

Viren: In the final, we were a relieved lot, we had nothing to lose. At the team meeting before the final, we decided to play attacking, free-flowing hockey and stamp our authority from the start. It was important because, like us, Argentina had performed way above expectations right through the tournament.

Our early goal opened the floodgates. Deepak (Thakur) scored a brilliant hat-trick. Above all, it was just an immense team effort.

Gagan: On the eve of the final, a dinner was hosted for the sides along with a photo-op for both captains along with the trophy. I remember being courteous and offering the Argentina captain the first chance to get photographed. I was shocked when he replied: "You should get a picture now because it's your last chance. Tomorrow you won't get to see this trophy. We'll be taking it back with us to Argentina."

"After that defeat (to Australia), we began to feel that it was probably time for us to pack our bags. When we were warming up for our next match against Netherlands, we felt it was already all over."

We ended up beating Argentina 6-1. After our win, I went up to him and asked whether he would like a picture with the trophy. He turned pale and fumbled for words before declining.

Jugraj: During our warm-up for the final, we used the barbs that the Argentina captain threw at our captain during the previous night's dinner to motivate the side: "Unhonen bada tagda baat kiya hai, iska jawaab toh dena padega" (They've used very strong words and we must give a befitting reply).

Since we had struggled against Argentina in our group-stage encounter, we decided to go all out this time. Thankfully, we kept getting goal-scoring opportunities at regular intervals and were successful in averting any attempt from their side. Deepak (Thakur) had a great backhand and made the most of the first opportunity that came his way, entering the D to score a brilliant goal. Two penalty corners came our way after that and I managed to convert them both.

When the scoreline was 3-0, the Argentinians looked visibly desperate and went into offensive mode, which gave us a chance to dominate them through counter-attacks.

On the experience of being part of a historic win:

Viren: It can't be put into words. The magnitude of our achievement hit us when we landed at Mumbai airport to find a sea of people waiting to welcome us. That win changed the lives of most in the team. 13 of us went straight into the senior team after the tournament and eight went on to feature in the 2004 Olympics as well. It was only after our win that opportunities and exposure for juniors improved.

Gagan: The night of our win, national federation president KPS Gill threw us a party which went on till early in the morning. The win was also special for me because I was denied an opportunity to be a part of the 1997 junior side, which went on to win silver. Despite being the highest scorer in the junior nationals that year, I was dropped from the national camp for the junior World Cup for being "too young to play for the country". I was 16 or 17.

"German players refused to shake hands with us after we beat them in the semifinals and most of them were biting their palms out of anger and frustration."

Though rising media support fetched me a call-up, I wasn't picked eventually. So to not only be able to lead the side but also bring home the trophy was an incredible feeling. Crackers burst as our train chugged into the station. My home (in Firozpur, Punjab) is seven minutes away from the railway station. That day it took me five hours.

Jugraj: After the win, we danced to Punjabi numbers on the ground. During the national camp in the run-up to the World Cup, when we were chatting with the 1997 junior team members who had won silver, one of them said: "Kam se kam silver jeet ke aana, phir humse baat karna" (First at least bring home silver, then talk to us).

These barbs gave us motivation. Almost the entire junior team, barring a few, made it to the senior team and produced some very good results through the next couple of years - the 2002 Busan Asian Games, close to three editions of the Champions Trophy and practically all the top tournaments.

On the title drought since and the current junior team's chances:

Viren: A combination of factors worked to our advantage: A great team, wonderful coaching staff, very useful training sessions and a fair share of luck. Not often do these factors come together. I don't think India has since had such an incredible junior side which also explains why we haven't won the title thereafter.

I think in 2005 we had a superb team and a very good chance. This time, I think there aren't any overwhelming favourites. Though India will be playing at home, I wouldn't count it as a huge advantage.

Gagan: We had an exceptionally talented side with a great mix of energy, enthusiasm and experience. The players were so connected to each other. Although it's tough to lay a finger on exactly why we haven't won since, I'm optimistic of the current team faring well.

Jugraj: I think we had a realistic chance of winning the title in 2005. The current junior team also has a good number of players who've been playing alongside each other for a long time. Keeping in mind the team composition and its recent results, I will be surprised if they don't make the finals.