In the space of 20 seconds during the break between the third and fourth quarters against France, Gregg Clark used the word ‘patience’ four times in his address to the players. At first, it was directed at drag-flickers Harmanpreet Singh and Jugraj Singh, who were repeatedly thwarted by the French defenders. By the time the huddle broke and the team dispersed, Clark, in a stern yet calm tone, passed the same instruction to every player.
As the former junior India chief coach, when it was led by Manpreet Singh, Clark – now the assistant coach of the Manpreet-led senior side – is aware of the players’ mindsets. And he knows old habits die hard.
Indian hockey has taken giant steps between 2013, when Clark coached the junior team, and now. But a couple of aspects have remained constant – inconsistency and impatience, especially when playing against teams that maintain proper structure and discipline, as France did in the FIH Pro League game.
India faced France twice last week, besides playing South Africa two times, in Potchefstroom. They won the first match 5-0 although, as chief coach Graham Reid pointed out later, that result came against a team which had landed in South Africa barely 48 hours before the match. The 5-2 defeat on Saturday, however, gave a lot more insight into the team that is looking to build on its Tokyo Olympics bronze medal.
France, in recent years, have constantly punched above their weight. The 2-2 draw against the Netherlands, who are undergoing a rebuilding phase, underlined their status as a fast-emerging team in world hockey. Yet, it wasn’t expected they’d demolish India the way they did last Saturday.
This was the second time in recent games that India conceded five goals against a team ranked lower than them; in December, Japan had stunned India 5-2 in the semifinals of the Asian Champions Trophy. In both those defeats, there was a pattern.
Reid, in his brief analysis of the defeat to France, said he hoped the team would start a match well and be the first to the ball. “It’s about focus and commitment,” he had said. In the Asian Champions Trophy, he had urged the players to ‘wake up’ while his team was getting steamrolled by Japan.
France were aggressive in winning back possession and maintained high intensity on turnovers, slicing open the Indian defence with their speed and precise passing. It’s ironic, given that India are known as a predominantly counterattacking side and have used the speed of their movement and passing to open up defences.
Japan troubled India in a similar way, pointing at the fragility in the midfield and the weakness in defence in dealing with counterattacks.
Profligacy in attack
While two French goals came late into the match, when India had committed a lot of men forward, the bigger concern for Reid would be the profligacy inside the attacking third. “We created opportunities, big word was execution,” Reid admitted.
India entered France’s circle once almost every two minutes but were able to find the back of the net just twice. A lot of times, the final pass was missing and even though the attackers, when pushed away from the goal, were able to find a foot inside the ‘D’ and earn a penalty corner, the drag-flickers were ineffective because of their one-dimensional approach.
Harmanpreet’s drag-flicks are often unstoppable and newcomer Jugraj Singh, too, showed his power with a hat-trick against South Africa. But against quick first-rushers who are prepared to throw their bodies in the line of the ball, like Victor Charlet, their angles were quickly shut down, rendering the attempts ineffective.
Unable to get past a solid French defence and with their most potent weapon, drag-flicks, misfiring, the players were left frustrated. And even though Clark urged them to stay patient, the players lost the plot, and the match.
The two matches against France captured India’s inconsistency. In both games, India entered the French ‘D’ 35 times each. But in one match, they scored five while in the other, they conceded five.
Such inconsistency was the hallmark of Indian hockey until very recently. Reid had instilled a sense of stability and calmness into the side, which was one of the key reasons they finished on the podium in Tokyo.
That calmness was missing during the second match against France and in patches in Sunday’s game against South Africa, when the hosts were able to hold possession and create scoring chances. India seemed rushed and tried to force the issue, especially in the final third, leading to mistakes.
Reid will have around 10 days with the team before India play eight matches at home – two each against Spain, Germany, Argentina and England – on back-to-back weekends. And his message is likely to be similar to Clark’s instructions during the quarter break: remain patient.