Dipsan Tirkey was just seven when India last won the Asia Cup. Back then, he did not even know what hockey was. Regardless, he joined the rest of his town, Sundergarh, in celebrating the win orchestrated by two Tirkeys — Prabodh, then captain, and Dilip. It was a subtle initiation to the sport, which would gradually turn into an obsession to emulate his idols. A decade on, he’s taken a small step towards that. The latest Tirkey to have emerged from the seemingly endless supply line of technically-gifted defenders from the tribal belt in and around Odisha might not have been as influential as Prabodh and Dilip, but he played a crucial role in India lifting the Asia Cup for the first time since 2007 by beating Malaysia 2-1 in the final on Sunday.
The title hardly comes as a surprise. If anything, it reinforces what was already known – that India are a notch above the rest in Asia. The fact that the country currently holds all senior continental titles (Asia Cup, Asian Games and Asian Champions Trophy) along with the under-18 Asia Cup is a testimony to its regional dominance. In that sense, this performance was on expected lines.
But looking at the bigger picture, this should calm some nerves. Indian hockey has been going through frosty times of late. The sacking of coach Roelant Oltmans, withdrawal from international tournaments, cancellation of the Hockey India League, and poor performances against minnows put a spanner in the narrative that, after years of neglect, hockey was getting back on track in India.
There were doubts whether this team would be able to put these distractions behind to get the job done on the field, especially since the ever-improving Malaysians have been consistently causing India problems. The fears were not unfounded as India looked to be struggling initially before they got their act together and finish with a flourish.
Although it’s risky to read too much in this title triumph, Sjoerd Marijne, Oltmans’s successor who had around a month with the team before flying to Dhaka, will take away a lot of positives. Most importantly, the manner in which the young players in the team have responded.
One of the reasons Oltmans was sacked was his reluctance to give the players who won the junior World Cup last year a break in the senior team despite being urged by Hockey India’s high performance director David John to do so. Given what was on display over the last one week, one can understand why John wanted fresh legs in the team.
Tirkey was one of several young players who continue to add to their reputation. Gurjant Singh, who had scored in the junior World Cup final against Belgium, showed he hasn’t lost his penchant to score timely goals. His last-minute strike against South Korea helped India salvage a point. He combined well with midfielder Sumit and created several opportunities for the forwards with his defence-splitting passes and runs down the flanks.
At the back, Harmanpreet Singh — the tournament’s joint top-scorer — continues to justify his selection ahead of seasoned defenders-cum-drag-flickers. He is strong and decisive with his tackles although the conversion rate from penalty corners remains iffy. Alongside him, Tirkey and Varun Kumar looked edgy at times but were covered well by Sardar Singh, who was used more in a defensive role.
That is likely to be Sardar’s new role in the team. The former captain still adds value to the team but is often beaten for pace by younger, quicker opponents. However, Sardar remains one of the strongest players technically in the team, making him an asset in defence, as was evident in the final.
With Sardar at the back, captain Manpreet Singh played with more freedom in midfield. His task was made easier by SV Sunil, who seems to be enjoying the responsibility that comes with being the vice-captain. Sunil was easily one of the best Indian players of the tournament, his pacy runs down the right proving too much for opponents to handle.
But this tournament will probably be remembered as the one where Lalit Upadhyay finally came of age. Upadhyay is one of the most
graceful players in the team but his subtle style often goes unnoticed because of flashier teammates. Upadhyay’s pass that led to a Satbir Singh goal against Pakistan was one of the best one’ll ever see on a hockey field while his goal in the final against Malaysia was equally impressive.
All this, however, came against opponents who are nowhere close to world standards – a point reinforced by the fact that none of these teams qualified for the Rio Olympics. The Indian team lacked structure, which is something Oltmans had worked relentlessly for the last two years. There were missed passes and miss-traps galore and the game-play was scrappy at times.
These errors went unpunished because of the quality of the opponents in Asia. India’s biggest test will be at the World League Finals in Bhubaneswar in just over a month’s time, when they will be up against all the top nations. For Marijne, this win will help in generating some lost momentum while for the likes of Tirkey, who played their first major tournament, this is a small step ahead of bigger challenges.