Setbacks aren’t new to Indian hockey. Almost every tournament the team has played in the last few decades, has ended as one. But even by India’s doleful standards, this was a choke of another level.
Let there be no doubt that this was India’s gold for the taking. A couple of weeks ago, hours before they set off for Jakarta, India coach Harendra Singh picked Japan as one of the finalists at the Asian Games. The other team, he said trying not to sound arrogant, would be India. Harendra got his prediction partially right – Japan defeated all odds, and an embattled Pakistan, and made it to the gold medal match. India did not.
The defending champions, overwhelming favourites to retain their Asian Games gold, lost to Malaysia 7-6 in sudden death after scores were tied at 2-2 following regulation time in the semifinal. They will now face Pakistan in the bronze-medal playoff. But that will hardly be a consolation for a team that also squandered the opportunity to become the first country to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, considering the gold medallists will be rewarded with a ticket to Tokyo.
The Olympic qualifying process is such that India will eventually make it. But the claims of them being a dominant force in Tokyo now seem thoroughly exposed. India may have the skills but this latest defeat raises serious questions over their big-match temperament.
For there is nothing else that explains the failure to win the gold medal. India’s dominance in Asia has been evident in various continental tournaments over the last five years. And this result should not change that — quality-wise, India remain a cut above the others.
What’s equally true is that these players tend to implode under pressure regardless of the opposition. They freeze, act arbitrarily and ditch the game plan. That happened at the Rio Olympics, at the Commonwealth Games, and now at the Asiad, in the only meaningful match they played.
Malaysia, on paper, shouldn’t be bothering India. There’s a daylight between the two teams in the world rankings (India are fifth, Malaysia 12th). Stats are stacked against the South-East Asians – before Thursday’s match at the Asian Games, India had won 10 out of their 11 matches. The only defeat came in the semifinals of the Guangzhou Games in 2010, an upset that left the players so scarred that it plays on their minds even today.
Mind is where they lost the battle on Thursday as well, with a little bit of arrogance and complacency thrown in. The strikers, who had scored 76 goals in five group stage matches, could not create one genuine goal-scoring opportunity in the match that mattered. The two goals came from defenders – Harmanpreet Singh (33rd minute) and Varun Kumar (40th) coming up with rare penalty corner conversions.
The midfield, which had bossed the minnows, never turned up; as was the case at the Commonwealth Games. There were just three patiently built moves in the whole match, the rest was just snatch-and-grab, trying to force their way into the opposition ‘D’. The defenders, barely tested so far, committed such errors that would embarrass a school-level player. They allowed Malaysia to come back twice – both those goals (Faizal Saari 39′, Rahim Muhammad Razie 59′) should have been saved by goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, but there’s only so much he can do.
The sheer numbers of missed traps and unforced errors were embarrassing; so was the discipline on the field. Sardar Singh, desperate to prove he’s not finished yet, made a needless tackle with less than 10 seconds remaining in the third quarter which got him a yellow card. Two minutes into the final quarter, Surender Singh too was shown a yellow for a silly tackle. With both players sent to the sin-bin, India played five of the last 15 minutes with nine men.
India were up 2-1 at that moment. But with a two-man disadvantage, they were forced to retreat into their own half, which swung the momentum in Malaysia’s favour. India were happy just to defend deep and waste time to protect their one-goal lead, which is an okay strategy if you are Germany but suicidal if you are a team that’s prone to committing blunders. They conceded – surprise, surprise – with just a minute to go, which forced a shootout.
India have considered this as one of their stronger points, banking largely on Sreejesh’s prowess. The skipper did his bit by pulling off three saves, but his teammates could not get past Malaysian stalwart Kumar Subramaniam. SV Sunil’s timid attempt in sudden death ultimately proved to be the difference, which was a bit harsh on the forward who was one of the few bright spots for India – Harmanpreet being the other – on Thursday.
Harendra rued the players’ inability to stick to the game plan (‘unpardonable’ is the word he used to describe the performance). It’s a grouse that his predecessors – Sjoerd Marijne after the Commonwealth Games and Roelant Oltmans after the World League Semifinals- have had too. Worryingly for India, the game’s pattern and coach’s comments could be from any big match they have played in the last decade. For all the strides they have taken in world hockey, India have refused to learn from past mistakes.
The team had hoped a gold at the Asian Games would set the ball rolling for a successful World Cup campaign. Instead, they head into the quadrennial event, which is less than three months away, with punctured confidence on the back of another setback.