Testing Time for Indian Hockey

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After two final defeats to Belgium, Indian Hockey requires serious soul searching

By Adarsh Vinay, DANFES

Indian hockey fraternity is in a celebratory mood and understandably so. After all, defying all odds, the team managed to reclaim the bronze in the Hockey World League (HWL) Final. On the face of it, this was quite a credible comeback considering that the world’s crème de la crème was in Bhubaneswar parading their wares in the year-end spectacle.

Moreover, the host’s prospects were dented in the initial stages where it suffered ignominy against lowly opponents, qualitatively speaking. But then, in this hour of glory, rather than rest content, it is time the authorities at Hockey India (HI) go in for soul-searching besides working on the inherent loopholes that stood exposed, on a studious note.

There is a general perception that Hockey India has not been promoting the sport to the required extent. Things remain unchanged at the grass-root level even as the over-ambitious Narinder Batra (perhaps inspired by N Srinivasan) was promoting himself at the global level, including becoming President of FIH. His ‘elevation’ did not ring in any changes at the ground-level, much like Srinivasan and Shashank Manohar at ICC.

To add salt to the wounds, Batra had to beat a hasty retreat and apologies after supporting the black armband protest by Indian players’ whey they were pitted against Pakistan in the HWL semi finals on June 18. It was demeaning on the part of an FIH boss to make a political statement when the fact of the matter is that Pakistan is as much a member of the international body as India is.

The position’s integrity mandates that he should swear by neutrality. In the circumstances, his preposterous show of patriotism is rather uncalled for and unbecoming of a man occupying such an exalted post. Batra can indulge in such political gimmicks when he becomes the President of Indian Olympic Association (IOA) that is almost certain to happen, sooner than later.

A tragic irony is that foreign coaches, who are paid millions, tend to spend more time on off-the-field comments and less on working on techniques of the boys. For instance, the Dutch coach Sjoerd Marijne contends that for bolstering Asian supremacy, an India-Pakistan showdown is unnecessary! It is like saying cricket does not need an Ashes or either USA or Russia will be enough for the sustenance of Olympics! The likes of Batra and Marijne should understand that in professional sport diatribe and day-dreaming are meaningless, and more so if Indian hockey has to show a semblance of what it was-a much-feared opponent. So, there is serious requirement for Indian Hockey to do the soul searching.

In the last two months, the Indian men’s hockey team has taken on Belgium five times and emerged triumphant on three of those occasions. Unfortunately for the Indian team, the other two matches, which they lost, were the crucial ones. This month alone, India have played and lost to Belgium in the final of the first as well as the second-leg of the Four Nation Invitational Hockey series.

Despite having beaten them 2-0 in the first-leg group stages, India went down 2-1 in the final. In the second leg, India won a pulsating encounter against Belgium 5-4. But they were unable to avenge the first final defeat and despite taking the lead four times, India drew 4-4 in regular time and ultimately went down 3-0 in the penalty shootout.

To focus on the positives, the two defeats apart, India were spectacular throughout the tournament, winning all 6 of the group games. Apart from the win against Belgium, India trounced Japan 6-0 in the first-leg opener and then defeated New Zealand 3-1 to book a berth in the final. In the second leg, India piped New Zealand 3-2 in the opener before overcoming a scare to defeat Japan 4-2 in the final group game. All in all, India scored 29 goals in the 8 matches they played and that is quite a reassuring number.

But while the goals India scored are commendable, it is the ones that we let in that cost us. Free flowing and spirited upfront, our defense has been shambolic, leaking too many goals. Against Belgium, especially in the second leg, India led on four occasions and really should have wrapped things up. But our inability to defend cost us and we sank in the shootouts. The problem isn’t just the occasional gaps in defense. Against stronger opponents, India’s entire strategy falls apart, letting opponents run all over us and that tendency has come back to haunt us.

Dilpreet Singh and Harmanpreet Singh were our star performers in front goal. Rupinder Pal Singh was rock solid in defense and also chipped in with valuable goals from penalty corners. Chinglensana Kangujam was always a live wire, cutting in from the flanks, while Harjeet Singh did his bit to boss the midfield. And while he was unable to save us in the penalty shootout, PR Sreejesh was spectacular in goal. In his defense, he did save the first Belgian attempt in the shootout. In December, in the quarterfinal of the HWL Final, it was Sreejesh’s heroics had helped India defeat Belgium 3-2 in a shootout.

And importantly, 3 wins out of 5 against the defending Olympic silver medalists are not record a bad result at all. It’s just that in a year which is only starting out and has a lot more up for grabs, both India Coach Sjoerd Marijne as well as the Indian team have their task cut out.