IN the end, India’s fourth-place finish at the Hockey World League in Antwerp was a fair reflection of the team’s current world standing. While coach Paul van Ass’s side is slightly superior than Pakistan, Malaysia, France and the rest, it has a long way to go before challenging structurally sound and technically better teams like Australia, Belgium and Great Britain.
There were a few takeaways though — youngsters Lalit Upadhyay, Devinder Walmiki and Jasjit Singh along with the versatile Manpreet Singh provided a few bright spots. However, the performances also magnified some of the key areas where the team has been found wanting of late. With just a year to go for the Olympics, Van Ass has his task cut out. The Indian Express takes a look at the areas where India lost the plot in Antwerp:
THE brilliant shimmy-and-dribble past three French defenders in the opening match of the World League semis was a throwback to his old days. But then again, they were French. Against higher-ranked nations, Sardar isn’t having the same impact anymore. After a long time, the captain looked energetic and creative during the first half of the World League. But as the tournament wore on, he lost his touch and uncharacteristic mistakes crept into his game.
Worryingly for the team, all the top sides have him sorted, as Great Britain so efficiently showed in the bronze medal match on Sunday. British players closed him down the moment he got the ball, cutting his angles and frustrating him with close man-to-man marking. However, because he plays in a position that is so crucial in keeping the possession and creating goal-scoring opportunities, it has severely impacted the team, which reflects in the number of circle penetrations they have made as well as losing the ball in the midfield.
WE’VE been moaning about the defence ever since Dilip Tirkey retired. But the situation now looks dire. And the ease with which premier teams like Australia, Belgium and Britain split open India’s defence ought to make coach Van Ass a worried man. Very worried.
Let’s get the excuse that India had a new, makeshift defence out of the way. The two regulars, VR Raghunath and Rupinderpal Singh, have hardly been better. In fact, Van Ass might be tempted to give the technically superior Manpreet Singh another go considering most others are prone to committing silly errors. But India at times have been shockingly inept, leaving goalkeeper PR Sreejesh thoroughly exposed.
Which brings us to another key issue: the last line of defence. For the last three years, India haven’t found a suitable replacement for Sreejesh. While he has been one of the best performers in the last 12 months, Sreejesh looked indecisive and allowed a few silly goals in the World League. His understudy Harjot Singh has not been given enough opportunities to prove himself and there is no clear third-choice ‘keeper. India conceded 21 goals in the seven matches, average of three per match. The coach has 12 months to fix the issue which none of his predecessors have been able to address in the last decade.
THERE are two parts to this: one, the inefficiency in winning corners and then the inability to convert the few chances that the team does create. Every time they enter the ‘D’, Indian forwards have tried to find the foot of a defender. However, on most occasions, they either over-run or are smartly tackled by the opposition, who shield their foot by firmly placing the stick in front of it.
The conversion rate is ever poor. Out of the 20 penalty corners they won in the seven matches in Antwerp, India could convert only five. India did not try enough variations and the direct flicks were either too feeble to trouble the keeper, or not on target. Newcomer Jasjit Singh scored twice against Malaysia while makeshift drag-flicker Manpreet Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh and Birendra Lakra found the target once. Van Ass used the tournament to try out different drag-flickers and he would not be amused by the stats.
VAN Ass’s idea was that all 10 outfield players should move forward while attacking and fall back when defending. It’s a new strategy, which demands complete understanding between the players and reading the game well. But in the first real experiment with the style, the players have looked clueless. While the players were on the same wavelength, they weren’t at the same level as their opponents.
Against teams likes Australia and Belgium, who have strong defensive structures, India resorted to blindly slapping the ball inside the ‘D’ in the hope of finding a foot and winning a corner or expecting a teammate to deflect the ball in. And if the forwards are the first line of defence, then they were highly disappointing. The forwards and midfielders did little to shield the fragile defence, leaving Manpreet and Jasjit with too much to do. One tournament isn’t enough to judge such changes and the players will understandably need time to adapt. But for how long Van Ass keeps faith in this philosophy remains to be seen.
IT was one aspect where India were on a par with the world’s best. Former coach Michael Nobbs and physio David John had taken India’s fitness to such a level that not only were they among the quickest on field, but were physically stronger too. It was a departure from the past, where Indian teams were among the least fittest in the world.
While they haven’t touched that level again, this team isn’t the same in terms of fitness. They were easily out-paced by Australia, Belgium and, on some occasions, even Malaysia. The growing number of injuries too is a concern. At last count, half-a-dozen Indian players were nursing various injuries. As India enter the final 12 months of preparation for the Rio Games, fitness is one aspect they can’t afford to ignore.