INDIA landed in Antwerp a fortnight ago without the pressure of Olympic qualification. They also did not have to worry about finishing in the top three to enter the World League finals as they had qualified for the November-December event by virtue of being hosts. For Paul van Ass, the ongoing semifinals were an opportunity to try out variations but the bigger test also was to prove that they deserved to be in the World League finals, which will be held in Raipur.
Not too long ago, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) was accused of making life easy for India, fast emerging as the financial nerve-centre of world hockey, by awarding some of the marquee international events.
Back-to-back finals of the World League, an Olympic and World Cup qualifier, were handed to India, who till last year were struggling to make the cut for major events.
At Rotterdam two years ago, India won just one match — in the classification round against France. They finished sixth out of eight teams, failing to qualify for the World Cup as well as the World League finals on merit. By entering the last-four of the event this time, Van Ass will be reassured of the steady progress the team has made over the last 10 months.
The team has been far from convincing so far but have shown the ability to fight back and eke out results, as was evident against Pakistan and Malaysia. Belgium, however, will be a different proposition. The hosts will provide a better picture as to how much progress India have made.
So far, India have had a positive record against lower-ranked teams and Asian opponents. But the team has been found wanting against structurally-superior European opponents. Belgium have been one of the most-improved nations in the last four years and will be keen to secure Olympic berth with a win on Friday.
In absence of key defenders and drag-flickers, Van Ass, trying different combinations and players in new positions, will be particularly pleased with the performance of Jasjit Singh in the quarterfinal against Malaysia.
The Dutchman, in charge of his first major tournament as India coach, wanted to test out alternate penalty corner shooters ahead of the Olympics. Even though the results so far have been below par, he sounded content. “We now have some alternative, I am very happy for Jasjit who works hard in the field,” said van Ass. “The good thing is to have penalty corner options. We were not looking good in penalty corners until this game, but things clicked today,” said van Ass.
Jasjit, who made his debut as a half-back during last year’s World Cup at The Hague, was picked as the second drag-flicker for this tournament. VR Raghunath was to be the first-choice penalty flicker here in Antwerp, backed by Jasjit, while Rupinderpal Singh was to be rested. After the team was chosen, Raghunath got injured during the preparatory camp and Rupinder came into the squad. Rupinder got injured in a warm-up game here in Antwerp and did not feature in any game during the preliminary round.
In the quarterfinal match against Malaysia, Rupinder was fielded for very short periods and the penalty corners were not being effective until Jasjit, whose first goal in internationals also came against Malaysia in open field action during last year’s World Cup, entered the frame and converted India’s fourth penalty corner in the 48th minute that brought India back to 2-2 parity.
It was his first international goal from penalty corner. He scored again seven minutes later from a corner to take India to the semifinals. How well the corner drill works against a defensively-strong Belgium remains to be seen.