Analysing the tough group India are placed in for the hockey World Cup before leaving for The Hague, team manager MK Kaushik seemed unperturbed.
“We begin against Belgium. They’ll be tough to beat but we need to begin well and boys know the importance of winning that game. We can certainly beat Spain and Malaysia; England will be tricky. At the moment, it’s tough to beat Australia but three wins and a draw will assure us a place in the top-three of the group at least. It shouldn’t be tough,” he said, rather nonchalantly.
Chief coach Terry Walsh too believes that if the team plays consistently throughout the tournament, what Kaushik so easily summarised is achievable. They are targeting a top-eight finish. But top-six, though, is very much realistic, Walsh insists whereas Kaushik is secretly bullish of a semifinal appearance.
It’s tough to share their optimism. No recent results or performances of the national team lead you into believing that their targets are realistic. The memories of the London Olympics debacle, where India took the wooden spoon, are still fresh. Moreover, they managed only a back-door entry to the World Cup.
India’s build-up to the quadrennial mega-event too has been rather ordinary. After the World League finals in January, the team hasn’t played competitive international hockey. At the World League, too, the results weren’t too encouraging. Barring a win over a depleted Germany there was nothing much to show for Walsh’s boys.
The Australian has maintained that they have adopted high standards in training and individual performances have improved in the last four months. Walsh has introduced some fascinating new aspects in training which have, according to him, polished the basics of every player.
But it’s difficult to judge the progress only based on the practice sessions. How well they implement it during a high-pressure match against a world-class opponent is yet to be seen.
WALSH’S LOW-KEY APPROACH
Walsh believes the low-key approach may well work in the team’s favour. India has had a tendency of getting carried away during major championships, which has reflected in the results. “What we’ve seen in the past is India do very well in the run up to the main tournament.
We then live in a bubble, which bursts during the championship. Our aim this time is to peak at the right time. Hopefully, we’ll manage that,” Walsh said.
Which is why he insists not to read too much into the results from last month’s exposure trip to Holland. India played five matches, lost twice to a developmental Holland team, were defeated by Belgium and won one and drew one against local clubs.
While the results were not flattering, Walsh seemed content with the progress made by the players and it also gave a glimpse into how the team will play at the World Cup.
Gurbaj Singh’s return strengthens the ever-fragile defence. The right-back hasn’t played a major tournament since the London Olympics but has looked sharp in the Hockey India League as well the major domestic tournaments.
Rupinderpal Singh and VR Raghunath have been highly effective in converting penalty corners and are also sturdy in deep defence.
The midfield, led by Sardar Singh, is quite easily India’s biggest strength. However, it will be interesting to see if he is used in a withdrawn role to support the defence or play in his regular position to bolster the attack.
The inexperienced forward line is likely to concern Walsh the most especially after two strikers — Ramandeep Singh and Nikkin Thimmaiah — were ruled out of the tournament after suffering nasty injuries earlier this week.Their absence won’t have a drastic impact on the team’s fortunes and their replacements, Lalit Updhyay and Yuvraj Walmiki, are as good, if not better than them.
India’s ineffectiveness in the attacking third is well-known. The team has often lacked creativity during attack and failure to create field goal opportunities frequently has seen the team over-rely on penalty corners.
SV Sunil said Walsh has focused on specific dribbling skills going forward which will add another dimension to them.
“We have struggled to beat the last defender many times. We’ve worked on it by trying various techniques. Hopefully, we’ll fare much better this time,” Sunil said.
India open their campaign against dark-horses Belgium on Saturday. And following an easy win over South Africa in their final warm up game, the team is beaming with confidence.
“We realise the importance to start well. The match against South Africa was a perfect warm up. We’re ready for the big moment,” Sardar said.
Goalkeepers: P.R Sreejesh, Harjot Singh, Defenders: Gurbaj Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh, V.R Raghunath, Birendra Lakra, Kothajit Singh, Manpreet Singh, Midfielder: Sardar Singh, S.K Uthappa, Dharamvir Singh, Jasjit Singh, Chinglensana Singh, Forward: S.V Sunil, Lalit Upadhyay, Akashdeep Singh, Yuvraj Walmiki, Mandeep Singh