Will you ever see a side more schizophrenic in its performances than the Indian hockey team? One day, they’ll mesmerise with their symphonic movements and silken skills on the field, waving magic with sticks as their wands. On other days, their sloppy, erratic performances will make you tear your hair out. Over the last one week, the thousands who swarmed the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar experienced these whirlwind of emotions.
India’s eventual fourth-place finish at the Champions Trophy seems more than decent considering the torrid start the team had to the tournament. Many believe it was India’s best chance to end their 32-year long wait for a Champions Trophy medal, especially after entering the semis.
But skipper Sardar Singh chose to see the glass as half full. “Our target was to match the performance from the 2012 edition, where we finished fourth. This has been a good year for us and in my opinion, this is a good way to end it,” Sardar said.
Indeed, this has been the best year for the Indian team for almost a decade – Commonwealth Games silver, Asiad gold and test series win Down Under are performances worth cherishing. Some have even suggested that this is one of the better bunch of players India have had in a long time, all at the peak of their physical state as well as on top of their game.
The progress made by the team since the dismal outing at the World Cup in June too has pleased high performance director Roelant Oltmans. The most important facet of the team has been its ability to grow as the tournament progresses. It’s an area that former coach Terry Walsh had put special emphasis on and it was yielded desired results.
The players are now learning from the mistakes they’re making and pacing themselves nicely to ensure they peak at the right time in the tournament. They did that at the Asian Games, where they recovered from a slow start, against Australia in the test series and also at the Champions Trophy. After back-to-back defeats to Germany and Argentina, India came back strongly against Holland and Belgium, learning from their mistakes and not repeating them.
But any talk of revival is still too soon. India’s improvement can be gauged only when the top teams play full strength. Germany and Australia had fielded under-strength teams in the tournament, both experimenting before the Olympic qualifying campaign begins next year. Germany had as many as 11 players who had little international experience while Australia too had travelled without their key men. Yet, India finished below both these sides in Bhubaneswar.
‘No big-match temperament’
Convincingly defeating a near-strength Holland and full-strength Belgium was the highlight not just of the tournament, but also the year. But beating a team like Belgium on one day and then losing to Pakistan on the next beats logic. It underlined the fact that India lacked big-match temperament. “We need to be consistent. We cannot be happy with one win over Holland. We need to do that often. But it’s a process. We will gradually get to that level,” Oltmans said.
India’s inferiority in a few areas is glaring and, at times, overshadows their improvement as a whole. For instance, in one-on-one, and even two-on-one, situations the players have lacked skill, creativity and awareness to get past their opponents. SV Sunil is a case in point here. For all the pace he can boast of, Sunil often ran into the wall of defenders, especially against Germany and Australia. Ditto Nikkin Thimmaiah and Ramandeep Singh, among others.
The defence, which looked solid in the Asian Games, too has looked shaky in other competitions. Pakistan had only six penetrations inside the India ‘D’ but still managed to score four times, a stat Rupinderpal Singh, VR Raghunath, Bimal Lakra and rest of the defenders would not be proud of. An over-worked Sardar had to constantly fall back against top teams to provide balance. But in doing so, it left a void up front, which Manpreet Singh could not fill with the same precision.
Walsh’s successor will have a challenging task of addressing these issues. “Of course, it’ll be an interesting challenge for him. But he will take over a side that is in good shape. This has been a good year for us and Champions Trophy has given us a right picture of where we stand. We need to build on this momentum to ensure we remain competitive against the best at the Olympics,” Oltmans said.