India were heavy favourites going into the Asian Champions Trophy, with Pakistan and South Korea not the force they used to be while the other teams in the fray, including hosts Malaysia, did not possess the big guns to put it across Roelant Oltmans’s wards.
Nevertheless, victory in Sunday’s final over arch rivals Pakistan was a Diwali gift for hockey lovers in the country, and not just because of the prevailing relations between the two neighbours.
Though ending up eighth at the Rio Olympics was a disappointment for most fans, Indian hockey has been on an upward curve for the last few years. Currently, the team is the best in the continent , and can upset the top teams in the game on a given day.
Oltmans has been involved with Indian hockey for almost four years now — in various capacities — and the benefits of continuity are there for all to see. The synthesis of subcontinental flair and European structure he has tried to develop is more visible 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 cannot be discounted either.
India is currently the sixth-ranked team in the world but the Dutch coach knows that if India is to take the next big step, strength and depth in various positions will be required to prepare for life after stalwarts like Sardar Singh, PR Sreejesh and VR Raghunath retire.
It is here that the triumph in Kuantan should gladden Indian hearts. Akash Chikte stepped up to the challenge when star goalkeeper 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.
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, South Korea and Malaysia – the side found itself under the pump. A few years ago, such a situation would have resulted in panic and poor decision-making; in this tournament, the players were able to resist the flow long enough to turn the tide.
It is an important development because even in Rio, the team was susceptible to conceding vital goals in the dying moments of matches.
The 2018 World Cup at home is the next target for the Indian team. With two years to go, Indian fans would be justified to hope that their team will do them proud once again.