There’s a Tokyo tinge to every time a Japanese team takes the field in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics. Two days at hockey with Japan making both the men’s and women’s finals at the Asiad — getting rid of Pakistan in men and denying the Indian women a title — proves that the country was not keen to play just as hosts, but were hoping to be competitive contenders when the Games fetched up. It didn’t help that the Indian women’s team made heavy weather of the chances they got going down 2-1 in the finals.
Japan’s high pressing and incisive converting of opportunities in the women’s final of the Asian Games – 2 out of 5 shots on target, as against India’s 1 off 10 – showed the rapid progress Japan had made in the run-up to their home Games.
That it cost India a title and an Olympics spot, is the ultimate double whammy. But the cherry blossoms are set to bloom out of season in two years from now, as the Sakura – that’s what the woman’s team is called – reap the benefits of the increased resources at their disposal.
Pressing high up the field and playing an aggressive brand of hockey in the finals on Friday, Japan overcame one of the better defenses of the tournament in the Indians. Two penalty corner conversions – one in each half through Shimizu and Kawamura — would put Japan ahead early in each of the two halves. Shimizu would go high up on the top right corner, while Kawamura would make it 2 out of 2, with India scoring one through a field goal before half-time.
India’s circle-penetrations remained poor — a carry over from the World Cup — and their inability to steal the PCs left them vulnerable. Excessive reliance on long shots in the ‘D’ and the ensuing chaos leading to a goal would work that once – when Navneet Kaur flicked it back for Neha Goyal to tip it over in the 25th minute, but that was never going to be enough.
India had far better control and possession on the ball, but modern hockey is seldom about keeping custody. India were not particularly sizzling in the third, and chances went astray, with all hopes on a desperate penalty corner 39 seconds from finish, after India had pulled out goalkeeper Savita. Japan on the other hand were aggressive in their play and clockwork at interceptions; it’s what they’ve worked on the last couple of years.
Japan started putting systems in place with the coming of its Australian coaching group, led by Anthony James – who was selected from a rigorous interviewing process. “This victory is a culmination of a year and half’s working process,” said assistant coach John Patrick, an Australian who’s been coaching a Japanese university side for the last 30 years.
“We played a lot of different players in different tournaments. So the group that played at the World Cup wasn’t the same as this one. This means that we have a pool of a good 40 players – this bunch and others equally good and pushing them, back home,” he would add.
All save one from the team that won the Asian Games work for “companies.” That’s Sony, Coca Cola, Sompo Security and the top national bank. While girls are scouted out of high school, Japan were determined to pick strong, big players who could be aggressive up front, even while retaining the skill. “Results change mindset, and now we are ready to compete at the global level,” Patrick added.
James coached the Canadian men and the Japanese were impressed with the work he’d put in in the World League. His brief was to build a steady team, but he recognised that there would be times when they’d have to win even on a bad day. “We focussed on regaining the ball with speed, and thankfully India didn’t get a touch when it got crowded,” James said in what was more an indictment of India’s inability than Japan’s proficiency.
“Our attacking transition is good, defensive transition not where it needs to be. At the Olympics, there will be pressure that’s 10 times this game. Holland is a step above the rest, but in women’s hockey, from No 2 to No 16, anyone can beat anyone,” James who’s with the team since June 2017 said.
Japan’s programme in hockey — their men’s team play Malaysia in the finals on Saturday — is not limiting itself to the Olympics though. “Of course we are putting in resources to be professional and successful at the Olympics. But we also want to create a legacy in hockey taking off from Tokyo. Japan’s always had good players. But they needed to be given confidence,” the head coach would say.
Moving bag, baggage, family to Japan — a country where he didn’t know the language — was a challenge he’s slowly warmed up to, and the biggest change he’s brought about is in the aggressive intent of the team.
At half-time, the teams were tied at 1-1. It’s when James would press upon the women to get control back on the ball and increase the pace of rotations in the midfield. At full-time India were left rueing their chances. Japan didn’t have to qualify for Tokyo — that they insisted on earning that right to play, means they’ll be more than the gracious hosts in two years.