For once, India lived up to the hype. And for once, they have managed to handle the pressure gracefully. But this Indian team is starting to do things in a manner unlike the ones that have played in the past.
Sardar Singh & Co. came into the Asian Games as one of the favourites for the gold medal alongside South Korea. Their nearest rivals Pakistan hadn’t played competitive hockey for almost a year coming into the Asian Games.
But India have made a habit of crumbling under pressure. In that sense, Thursday’s encounter against Pakistan was a bigger test for India’s mental strength, especially after losing to them in the group stage.
Pakistan opened the scoring in the third minute through Muhammad Rizwan Senior, much to the delight of the local Pakistani contingent in the stands. Just when it appeared that India would once again choke on the big stage, they turned the game around in style. They levelled the scores in the 27th minute via Kothajit Singh and though India continued to remain the dominant side for the remainder of the match, they failed to score the winner.
However, even during the intense pressure of the tie-breakers, India looked calm. Eventually, PR Sreejesh made two saves off Muhammad Butta and Abdul Khan to end India’s long wait for an Asian Games gold. But even before the team would step on the podium to accept their medals, chief coach Terry Walsh sounded out warning against complacency. “We need to be a little cautious with our celebrations,” said Walsh. “We should not sit back and we must understand that this not the end. We have work towards new goals.”
India had earlier won in 1966 and 1998, while Pakistan had won the title eight times in the past, including in 2010 at Guangzhou. “Pakistan played the old style of hockey, but we played the modern game. That was the difference. Our players stayed mentally alert throughout. Playing with only passion is not enough. In our coaching group we have some real experience (to handle this),” he added.
Much of this victory can be attributed to the Australian’s planning and implementation. Under him, the team has shown gradual, but notable, improvement in key aspects of the game which were previously neglected.
The key difference between the India of Michael Nobbs and India of Walsh has been the rhythm of the team. Under Nobbs, India became one of the fittest sides in world hockey. But that strength wasn’t channelized in the right direction. The players were often caught out of position and ran aimlessly quite a few times. Basics like trapping and passing were a problem even though Nobbs’ predecessor Jose Brasa had worked relentlessly on this aspect.
But Walsh has ensured the fitness card is used the right way. He has urged the players to press the opponents at high speed and frequently as well as falling back to defend. The passing has been swift and there has been radical improvement in other basics of the game as well.
Sure, problems remain. Field goal conversion is one of the big headaches the coaching staff is facing. Even against Pakistan, the team missed nearly half-a-dozen chances to score the winning goal. SV Sunil missed two sitters while Dharamvir Singh and Ramandeep Singh were guilty of not converting chances that came their way as well.
Earning penalty corners is another issue that has dogged the team. The penetration inside the opponents D has lacked teeth, and inability to earn PCs negates the advantage that Rupinderpal Singh and VR Raghunath bring to the team.
Walsh said there is a need to make ‘significant changes’ to ensure the momentum isn’t lost after the 1998 triumph. He also insisted that as a country, India needs to learn how to respond to big hockey. “We need to be a little cautious with our celebrations. The team has got potential, but it needs significant changes, especially in the way things are done in India so that it goes from strength to strength,” he said. “This is just a stepping to stone for the Olympics.”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines