Coach Gregg Clark was looking behind the advertising hoardings and Baljit Singh Saini was searching underneath the dugout bench as the support staff hunted for a lost ball after Wednesdays practice session with some urgency. We dont miss them in practice, said assistant coach BJ Cariappa. We only miss them in matches.
The remark,more in jest than it was caustic,summed up the mood in the camp. A day after being knocked out of the Hockey Junior World Cup quarterfinal race following a 3-3 draw with Korea,there werent slumped shoulders or long faces. Quite to the contrary,the players,who were in tears after the match on Tuesday,oozed joie de vivre as 20-year-olds do.
During their light training ahead of Thursdays 9-12th place qualification match against Argentina,the players were in a mood more cheerful than they have been in during such sessions over the last two week or so. They played a bit of what was a variation of rugby to warm up before proceeding to some penalty stroke and penalty corner practice.
For the first time in the tournament,it was palpable they were playing for fun. The result had knocked them out all right,but it also seemed to have liberated them.
Take for example Sushant Tirkey.
In the first two matches,India went ahead with Harjot Singh,the number one junior goalkeeper. However,for Tuesdays must-win game against Korea,the think tank opted to play Tirkey under the bar.
Tirkey,even though a talented goalkeeper,has a suspect temperament when it comes to handling big-match pressure. During the India U-21 teams tour of Europe earlier this summer,he let in nine goals against Belgium and later admitted to have panicked on the field.
Against Korea,he was beaten on the near side,on the far side and though the legs by dragflicker Seungju You. To blame Tirkey may also mean taking some credit away from the tournament top-scorer You (seven goals),but then the Indian goalkeeper allowed himself to be out-thought very easily.
During practice on Wednesday,it was difficult to believe it was the same Tirkey as he made some spectacular saves off Gurjinder Singh,Amit Rohidas and Sukhmanjit Singh,Indias dragflicking trio.
What holds true for Tirkey holds true for India too. They succumbed to the pressure more than anything. If creating scores of chances in each of their Pool C match shows the extent of their skill and abilities,failing to convert most of them perhaps suggests the nerves got the better of them in the striking circle. Coach Gregg Clark agreed. Together with the technical skill of finishing comes the mental ability to keep your mind calm and clear in that moment,so certainly this is an area we can work upon, he said after Tuesdays match.
all about confidence
At no point was this shortcoming more explicit than,perhaps,against Canada,an encounter they ought of have won by a margin significantly bigger than 3-2. Perhaps,it was here that Indias campaign suffered the biggest blow.
Said Canadas assistant coach Inderpal Sehmbi: At this stage,the junior level,confidence is a huge factor. At the senior level,you are more experienced,you know how to keep calm when the team is trailing because you have been in those situations before. But at the under-21 level,if you concede one goal,you lose all confidence. Thats what happened to India against Canada and Korea. When we put pressure on them,they wilted.
Now that the pressure is gone,India can look forward to the next two classification matches as a learning curve: to see how good they can be if there are no nerves to overwhelm the team. Therefore,Manpreets boys should play not for pride on Wednesday,as is being suggested,but to go out and have fun on the field. Like they did on Wednesday.
Thursdays fixtures: Quarterfinals: Netherlands vs New Zealand (11am); Belgium vs France (1:15pm); Malaysia vs Korea (3:30pm); Australia vs Germany (5:30pm)
Classification matches: Egypt Vs England (11:30 am); Spain vs Canada (14:00 pm); Pakistan vs South Africa (4:30 pm); Argentina vs India (8pm).