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When nerves play hookey

Conceding late goals has been Indian hockey’s bane and Mihir questions whether it has more to do with the mind.

By: Express News Service Written by Mihir Vasavda | Updated: July 17, 2014 10:09 am
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)

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 otherwise. The problem isn’t in the mind, he insists. Rather, it lays in the inexperience of playing in high-pressure situations. At the World Cup, Walsh says he has worked out what he believes is the ‘single-most critical factor’ that assails the national team. “The players don’t know how to win. Our team doesn’t know that yet,” he admits.

The Australian, who has masterminded the Olympic triumphs of Australia and the Netherlands, says the inability to replicate the ‘stress syndrome’ in flawed domestic tournaments is visible in the national team’s performance in big matches, where they find it tough to make the right decisions during critical times.

Cracking under pressure

To back his claim, Walsh cites the examples of the strikers. During training, the forwards understand where they should be positioned inside the semi-circle when an attack is being conjured. Nine out of 10 times, they will get it right during practice. “But under pressure, they revert to type. Even they understand they made a wrong decision… So it’s not a matter of not knowing, it’s a matter of execution. We are slowly getting better at it but it’s difficult under those stressful conditions,” Walsh says.

Several former India captains and coaches, including V Baskaran, Pargat Singh, Jagir Singh and Balbir Singh, concur with Walsh’s theory. The crucial element of making a decision and executing it in split seconds, they say, can improve only when the quality of domestic hockey, currently in an abysmal state, improves. Even the national championships come to life only at the semifinal stage, sometimes not even then. Scorelines like 20-0, 25-0 in the group stages are routine, rather than exceptions.

The domestic teams are guilty of adopting a lax attitude towards training and the pace of the game seems like watching international hockey in super slow-motion. “So, if a player spends a good 10 seconds on the ball at a domestic tournament, he gets only three or four seconds at international meets. That’s the reason he panics and loses possession. It’s the case at any point during a match and gets magnified when it happens in the closing stages of the match,” Baskaran points out.

Walsh insists this inexperience is reflected in the team’s inability to close out matches. He talks of getting the ‘developmental processes’ right. “They have to understand the importance of how they react to various environments in the game, individually and collectively. Whether it’s three minutes to go and they’re 2-1 up or there are four minutes to go and they are 0-1 down. We don’t have the mentality from 14, 15 years of age as to what’s got to transpire. And it gets hard to fix at the top, but you have to address the issue somewhere,” the 60-year-old says.

He adds: “If we are able to fix that in domestic competitions, then they come through with that knowledge. You have to experience international pressure arena. Because we have just the Olympics and the World Cups as the two big high-pressure tournaments in hockey. The players tend to get startled a bit by the occasion.”

At Glasgow, India is likely to face with such pressure only at the semifinal stage, assuming they reach there. Placed in Pool A alongside hosts Scotland, Wales, Australia and South Africa, the path to the last-four should be straightforward. The team landed in the Scottish capital with the burden of matching, if not bettering, the performance at Delhi 2010.

But Walsh has remained guarded and refrained from making bold claims. One can understand. After all, a medal at the CWG is of relatively small significance in the overall scheme of things of getting the processes right.

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