At the start of every international season, Canadian hockey players pool in anything between $10,000-15,000 each. In a country where hockey generally means the ice variation, funding for the field game is minimal. The team has to fund its journey till they secure a spot at the Olympics or World Cup. The government chips in only after they qualify.
The opposite is the case with India. A country with a history of eight Olympic gold medals hardly has to struggle for resources and government support. But although the team has made undeniable strides in recent times, it invariably comes up short at the big events. This trend was brought painfully to the fore when the unfancied Canadians put one across their more hyped opponents in London on Sunday, a victory which assumed great significance for the North American team.
When Mumbai-born-Ontario-bred Keegan Pereira smashed home Canada’s equaliser against India in the fifth-place playoff of the Hockey World League, it was understandable why the celebrations were so wild. The 3-2 win ensured them a spot at next year’s World Cup in Bhubaneswar and with it, hundreds of thousands in government funding. It was not the first time an unlikely team had celebrated at India’s expense in the tournament. A couple of days earlier, Malaysia sealed its World Cup spot by beating India.
The South-East Asians, fast becoming India’s bogey team in knockout matches, stunned their much-fancied continental rivals in the quarterfinals to book their Bhubaneswar berth. The win would’ve been a vindication of sorts for Malaysia’s high-performance director Terry Walsh, who was sacked as India’s coach in 2015 following differences with then Hockey India president Narinder Batra. But the result would be sweeter even for Malaysia.
Earlier this month, the Batra-led International Hockey Federation (FIH) shunned them out of its new pro league, saying they weren’t exciting or high-profile enough to fit into the elite nine-team format. Apart from India, Malaysia is the only other Asian country where hockey is still thriving. But it wasn’t enough for the FIH. For the underdogs, beating India and qualifying for the World Cup was a statement of intent. On the other hand, the only statement India made during the tournament was political.
Hockey India (HI) urged the players to wear black armbands for the match against Pakistan to condemn the terrorist attacks on the Army. Coupled with emphatic twin wins over what is seen as the weakest Pakistan team ever, HI tried to put some positive spin on an otherwise embarrassing fortnight. But even that wasn’t enough to paper over the cracks. Chief coach Roelant Oltmans, whose selections are under scrutiny, was livid at the players. “Our boys have to understand that beating Pakistan is not enough… Until we can beat the big teams like Holland and Malaysia, we will go nowhere. Pakistan is not a yardstick,” he said.
Prioritising Malaysia over Pakistan shows how the status quo in the continent has changed. That, perhaps, was the only new thing we learnt about the team. For all the talk about making rapid improvement over the last 18-or-so months, India seem to have gone back to square one. Its struggles against big teams in big tournaments have continued. What is alarming is the team’s increasing inability to beat teams they usually did without breaking a sweat.
In London, it was Canada and Malaysia. At the Azlan Shah Cup in April, Malaysia defeated India while at the Olympics last year, Canada held them to a 1-1 draw. The result meant India got a tough quarterfinal opponent in Belgium, who defeated them 3-1. It’s tempting to dismiss these results as aberrations, like they did when Belgium defeated them in the final of 2011 Champions Challenge.
That match in Johannesburg was the turning point in the India-Belgium rivalry and the Europeans have had the upper hand ever since. India’s damage is self-inflicted. There is a pattern to most of the matches they have lost against these opponents. The collective improvement in the standard of fitness allows the team to play a high-press game. They like keeping the ball, passing around quickly and playing long, diagonal crosses inside the ‘D’, looking for deflections. But against organised defences who employ man-to-man marking they have struggled, primarily because they fail to execute their game plan.
Under pressure, they revert to the age-old habit of making long, aimless runs which are easy for defenders to block. Maybe it’s to do with the big-match temperament, or the lack of it. Oltmans has lamented this habit of his players. “Carrying the ball (against teams who pack defences) does not work. They (Indian players) know, understand and discussed it. But you still need to execute it,” Oltmans had said after the Malaysia quarterfinal.
London hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for India. They finished 12th at the 1986 World Cup, 12th at the 2012 Olympics and sixth out of 10 teams in the World League. Luckily for them, this tournament did not have the likes of Australia, Germany, Belgium and New Zealand. Else it could’ve been worse. India have entered the semifinals of all the tournaments it has hosted since 2014.
To repeat that at the World Cup next year will take something special. Barring the 1994 Sydney edition, India have finished between eighth and 12th in every edition since 1986. However, recent results against mid-rung teams and world hockey’s increasing competitiveness have shown that India is barely clinging on to that level as well. Neither Canada nor Malaysia have resources comparable to India. But with some gritty performances, they have left India bruised.