A couple of days ago, at the unveiling of the Hero Hockey World League trophy in New Delhi, Sardar Singh faced an unexpected problem. The function featured the eight captains of participating teams. But when all the rival skippers had sat down on the sofa’s provided for them, it turned out that there wasn’t a place for the host nations captain. Eventually, however, another appropriate sofa was brought forward for the Indian captain.
Sardar’s predicament was similar to the one faced by his team. The World League ostensibly features the top eight teams in the world. India are ranked 10th. And while Argentina too are ranked a lowly 11th, they can say they have legitimately qualified for the tournament. The South American side are in Delhi courtesy a silver medal finish at the World League semifinals — a run in which they were the only team that denied Olympic champions Germany a win. India, meanwhile, finished sixth out of eight teams in their leg of the World League semifinals. The only reason India are playing the Finals is because they are hosting it.
Poor form — India’s best result last year has been the silver medal at the Asia Cup — has been compounded by injuries ahead of the World League. Of the 28 member preparatory squad, five were carrying injuries meaning the 18-man-squad has been chosen from 23 players. The run up to the tournament hasn’t been ideal with players being called off for HIL photoshoots in between their camp. India don’t have it easy in their group phase either — other teams are Olympic champions Germany, Olympic semifinalists England and World No. 6 New Zealand. One bright spot is the fact that in an eight-team tournament India are assured of playing quarterfinals. (League matches just decide the quarterfinal line-up.)
Sobered by the fact they are rank outsiders, India’s hopes are suitably modest ahead of the year’s first big tournament. “Improvement is our main goal,” said Terry Walsh, himself only in his third month as chief coach of India. Walsh says he is using the tournament to analyse progress made in four areas of performance — physiological, psychological, tactical and basic skills. “That’s realistically what we are doing. We have got a training methodology in place which permits us to look at those things. We will also be looking at the level of performance of players and evaluate where they are both as individuals and collectively as a team,” he said.
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Three months is a short time to be expecting a turnaround in the team’s fortunes and Walsh says for all the changes he has brought in, the team’s ability to perform under pressure will be tested. “I think we have (implemented some changes) but it will be interesting to see whether or not we can apply them on the pitch. In our practice games we had a mixture,” he said. Indeed India were impressive against Argentina, matching the opposition’s physicality and avoided conceding PCs on the defence. However, in their second game against Netherlands, India were simply unable to match the pace of the Europeans and except for a tiny portion of play weren’t able to hold possession.
India play their first competitive game of the tournament against England. The English are one of the few top level teams against whom India has had positive results recently. The last time the two met, at the 2012 Champions Trophy, India came out on top 3-1. India also beat them in the semifinals of the 2010 Commonwealth Games at the same venue. The fact that India did well against Argentina, who play a similarly robust game as England do, should boost their confidence.
Pressure on midfield
India’s forward line is a mix of inexperience in Nikkin Thimmaiah, Mandeep Singh and Affan Yousuf and a couple of comeback men in SV Sunil and Yuvraj Walmiki. That and the fact that the defence is perennially suspect mean that much of the pressure will have to be shouldered by the midfield. Helmed by Sardar Singh, the centre line featuring SK Uthappa, Dharamvir Singh, Manpreet Singh, Chinglensana Singh and M B Aiyappa gives more confidence.
Ahead of a tough couple of weeks, India will want to prove they merit belonging in top flight hockey. Sardar Singh believes the team is up for the challenge. “We have a young and talented team in transition. We need to do the basic things right. We have good mid-field and some very attacking players upfront. We need to tighten up our defence and then we will be in a position to defeat major teams in the world,” Sardar said.
Day One fixtures
Australia vs Belgium 2pm
Netherlands vs Argentina 4pm
Germany vs New Zealand 6pm
India vs England: 8 pm
All matches live on Ten Sports