Thursday, Nov 27, 2014

When nerves play hookey

While fitness levels have improved, Indian hockey’s age-old mental frailties remain. (Source: Express Photo) While fitness levels have improved, Indian hockey’s age-old mental frailties remain. (Source: Express Photo)
Written by Mihir Vasavda | Posted: July 17, 2014 1:18 am | Updated: July 17, 2014 10:09 am

It began with a shimmy on the left in the 56th minute. Sandeep Singh, with a delightful body feint, created space just enough to whip in a cross, which was bravely slotted past James Fair by a diving Vikram Pillay. Four minutes later, Sarvanjit scored his second and India’s third, and England, who had enjoyed a two-goal cushion for a major part of the semifinal at the Delhi Commonwealth Games, were left scratching their heads.

Showing nerves of steel, India won the match via tie-breaker in front of a packed house, thus making its maiden appearance in the CWG final.

It’s another matter that the final was a completely one-sided affair, with the Indians’ abject humiliation by the mighty Australians reminiscent of what Brazil experienced against Germany in the FIFA World Cup.

The surrender cast a long shadow over India’s semifinal win. But for a team that is notorious in conceding last-minute goals and had become immune to heartbreaking defeats, the win against England was a rare occasion where the players showed courage to snatch a win from the jaws of defeat. It promised a lot, but as is the case in Indian hockey, it turned out to be a false dawn.

Conceding late goals has been a generational problem for Indian hockey. Players have come and gone, coaches have been hired and fired, but this one piece of mystery still remains unsolved. Since the turn of the century, there have been at least seven instances where India have conceded goals in the dying seconds and gifted the match to their opponents; four of them since that comeback win over England in Delhi.

It’s difficult to decide where to start from — the match against Poland in Sydney 2000 or the one against Australia at Athens four years later. Or is it the remarkable meltdown against the Netherlands in the Champions Trophy 11 years ago or that against Belgium in the Champions Challenge in 2011?

Instead, let’s just focus on two most recent incidents. They occurred within a span of three days last month and encapsulated the pain and suffering of every single defeat in the past. The first was inflicted by Belgium, who scored with just 22 seconds remaining. A couple of days later, England – the same England against whom India recorded that famous CWG win – condemned India to its second successive defeat after scoring two minutes from time.

Those two results were eventually the difference between India finishing in the top-six and fighting for the crumbs. Eminent sports psychologists Bhishmraj Bam and Rudi Webster identify this as a deep-rooted problem in the minds of the players. Players, who privately too acknowledge how ‘scared’ they are when playing against the clock and how ‘scarred’ they are by ghosts from the past.

But chief coach Terry Walsh believes continued…

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