Former India captain Sardar Singh feels the constant chopping and changing ahead of the World Cup had an impact on the performance of the team that lost in the quarterfinals to Netherlands on Sunday. In an interview with The Indian Express, the recently-retired playmaker talks about how the lack of game sense has affected India’s chances and stresses on the need to keep the current playing group together. Excerpts
What do you think of India’s performance at the World Cup?
We can be proud about the way the team started the quarterfinal. We got equal chances but Netherlands showed a lot of experience, especially in the last few minutes when players like (Billy) Bakker, (Valentin) Verga, (Robert) Kemperman wasted time by playing the ball in our left corner and slowed things down. We did well in group stages too. South Africa and Canada were easier matches but they still had to be won. But the main match was the quarterfinal and we should have won that match, even if it was by playing a dirty, ugly match because eventually, the result matters. No one remembers if you played well. Scoreline is the only thing that matters.
Why isn’t the team able to win such close matches?
It takes time. Belgium, for instance, have been playing with the same batch of 12 players. It’s just now that they’ve included four-five young players. They haven’t changed a lot of coaches too. To get a result in a team game, experience and combination between players is very important. In the last few years, we had 34-35 players in the core group.
Do you think lack of game sense is a big problem for the team?
Absolutely. Skill wise, we are the best. Fitness wise, we are the best. This time, the strategy was also good – back four, two in the midfield, two as attacking midfielders and two forwards. Most of the times, the structure was good. But we lacked awareness: so many balls flew past the second post; our positioning in the circle wasn’t up to mark. We tried fancy passes in the centre, but you should do that only when you are sure.
At the Asian Games, you got a yellow card in dying stages in the semifinal against Malaysia. Against Netherlands, Amit Rohidas got sent off late in the last quarter. The players repeat same mistakes and they end up costing big matches.
There are certain things that I realize now when I watch the match from a distance. When I look back, even I have made mistakes –the yellow card against Malaysia in the Asian Games is one such example. Amit’s card was an important moment as well. We need to have big-match temperament and should be disciplined in these crunch scenarios as it is very tough to play high-intensity matches with a man down.
How can you improve game sense and discipline?
By creating such scenarios in training. Playing abroad is another option since the level is very high. More and more Indian players should play abroad and even Hockey India has always encouraged it. I have played in a few countries myself. But our system is different. The departments, who pay our salaries, want us to play for them and the seasons often coincide.
There were a lot of changes in the team in the last few months in terms of coaches and players. Do you think the instability that was created had an impact?
This year we started with the Commonwealth Games and there were big tournaments one after other after that. Changing players over and over again had an impact. As per my observation, all other teams at the World Cup had a steady squad – at best, they had 3-4 new faces and they too because they were extraordinary talents. But in our case, after CWG, most players did not know if they would be a part of the team for the next tournament. Some senior players who deserve to be in the team were made to feel insecure about their place in the team so they weren’t able to guide the young players. They thought, ‘when my place is under doubt, how can I take initiative?’ Since the beginning, we did not know who’ll be in the team. They had time to experiment after the World Cup.
Should they do that now?
Ideally, they should continue with this group. Almost everyone is around 25-26. These players have suffered a heartbreaking defeat and will learn from it. If we keep this whole group together, they will get really competitive.
But do you fear for the team’s immediate future since India won’t be playing for next six months? The next scheduled assignment is FIH Series Finals in June…
Of course! The team is playing well and they will only get better. But unless you don’t play top teams and big tournaments, how will you get the experience? If you play China and beat them by 10 goals, there’s no point in that. The main thing is to beat the top teams. It’ll happen only when you train with high intensity and play against good teams. But I am sure Hockey India and the coaches will plan something good. Olympic qualifiers are our next big tournament.