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“An India-Pakistan match is always special and this is a special victory,” India skipper PR Sreejesh, had gushed after India’s thrilling win over Pakistan in the Asian Champions Trophy final. But in a bigger sense, it was not just the triumph or beating the arch-rivals that made the occasion special. It was yet another reminder that under Roelant Oltmans, India are steadily progressing and no longer susceptible to big-match implosions.
On the team’s return late on Monday, coach Roelant Oltmans seemed pleased that things went according to plan . “After a good season we wanted to begin the new cycle on a winning note,” he said.
There was no doubt that India were favourites going into the Asian Champions Trophy, with Pakistan and South Korea not the force they once were and the other teams in fray, including hosts Malaysia, not having enough big guns to put it across Oltmans’s wards. But that doesn’t diminish India’s accomplishment a wee bit, and it was a continuation of the good work under the Dutch coach. Despite the 8th-place finish at the Rio Olympics, Indian hockey has been on an upward curve for the last few years. The team is the best in the continent, and on their day can topple better-ranked sides.
Even sides such as Australia can no longer dominate them as they used to in the recent past. “We received a lot of compliments for our performance at the Olympics, but we did not win enough matches. It’s important for the team to learn how to win big tournaments,” Oltmans said. For this revival, he deserves credit.
The Oltmans factor
The Dutchman has been involved with Indian hockey for almost four years now, in various capacities. The synthesis of sub-continental flair and European structure that he has tried to develop is more visible now, with two podium finishes in elite FIH events over the last 12 months.
The benefits of rubbing shoulders with the best players in the world in the Hockey India League also cannot be discounted. India is currently the 6th-ranked team in the world, but the Dutchman knows that if India are to take the next big step, strength and depth in various positions is required to prepare for life once stalwarts like Sardar Singh, PR Sreejesh and VR Raghunath move on.
It is here that the triumph in Kuantan should gladden Indian hearts.
Akash Chikte stepped up to the challenge when the charismatic Sreejesh was injured, and the likes of Pardeep Mor, Jasjit Singh Kular, Surender Kumar, Affan Yousuf and Nikkin Thimmaiah made their mark, the last two scoring in the final.
“We generally have more than 18 players in the camp, most often 22 and sometimes even more. Whenever they get a chance they stand up to be counted,” the Dutchman said.
Another facet of the game that will please Oltmans and Indian fans is the team’s resilience under pressure.
At various moments in the tournament — especially against Pakistan, Korea and Malaysia — the side found itself under the pump. But while it would have resulted in panic and poor decision-making a few years ago, the players now seem able to resist the flow for longer and turn the tide eventually. It is an important development as even in Rio, the team was susceptible to conceding vital goals in the dying moments of matches.
Oltmans acknowledged this particular aspect of the game.
“We have worked a lot on mental toughness. Reaching a higher level when the pressure is on is not easy, but this team did it, and this one of the aspects that I am very proud of. Team did not play it’s very best, but they raised their game whenever it was required. Most of the teams had employed very defensive tactics against us, but we coped with it, and our scoring rate proved it,” he said.
But the journey to reclaim the lost echelons of the game has only begun, he feels.
The 2018 World Cup on home turf is the next target for the Indian team. With two years to go, Indian has enough time to plan their forward march.