At the start of 2018, veteran midfielder Sardar Singh made a comeback into the Indian hockey team. The former captain was dropped for the Hockey World League finals in Bhubaneswar, in October, 2017, and was also not included in the Asia Cup Squad in December. In his absence, India struck bronze in World League, and then followed it up with a 2-1 win over Malaysia in the Asia Cup final to clinch the gold, under Manpreet Singh’s captaincy.
But in February, with Manpreet being rested, Sardar returned to the side – regaining his position as the captain – as India travelled to Malaysia for the 27th edition of Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. In five games, India managed only one win and a draw, against Malaysia (5-1) and England (1-1), respectively, and finished in the fifth spot.
With the Commonwealth Games in sight, there was an immediate reaction from the team management. A month after Sultan Azlan, Sardar was dropped again from the team – and Manpreet was again handed the captain’s armband. Goalkeeper PR Sreejesh also returned to the squad from an injury that saw him sit on the sidelines for several months.
The theme, recurrent in Indian Hockey over the past few years has been of chopping and changing and in 2018, it was much the same. Every tournament, every poor performance, and every bad result, prompted the management to make multiple changes to the squad, over and over again – something which the veteran described as one of the reasons for the team’s inability to compete against the big teams.
“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,” Sardar had told Indian Express in an interview after India’s World Cup defeat to the Netherlands earlier this month.
The 2018 World Cup winning Belgium team had 12 out of 19 players used with over 150 international caps to their name. India, on the other hand, had entered with only 6 out of 18 players with as many caps. The constant changes in the squads had seen the side reduced to a relatively inexperienced unit by the World Cup started in the final week of November.
Sardar was one of the big chapters in 2018. After being dropped from CWG squad, he made a grand return in June at the Champions Trophy in Breda, where India put on their best show this year. The side put on a fighting display against Australia in the final, but went down 3-1 in shootouts to finish in the 2nd position.
With his performance, he was retained in the Asian Games squad, where the defending champions suffered a humiliating defeat to Malaysia on penalties and failed to bag the gold medal. After the tournament, Sardar Singh was dropped again for the Asian Champions Trophy and he decided to call it quits, meaning India would enter the World Cup without their most experienced man.
The “chopping-and-changing” was not limited to the players – it befell on the coaches once too. Eight months after sacking Roelant Oltmans as the men’s team coach, the management once again made another change. Former Women’s team coach Sjoerd Marijne, who took over the coaching duties from Oltmans, was sent back to his previous duties, and Harendra Singh was given the reigns as the head coach of the men’s team. The change came just after India failed to grab a medal at the CWG, losing the bronze medal match against England.
Former India coach and captain Vasudevan Baskaran reckons that frequent axing of coaches will not make a difference if the players do not improve their game. “When we start reading the game, we will step up the ladder. Just simply blaming the coaches is not fair when you continue to keep the same players in the team who are not performing up to the mark. When the same, repeated mistakes are made by the players, the coach should not be the first one to axe,” he said in an interview to IndianExpress.com.
Another plot this year revolved around the captain’s armband. In six tournaments, this year, India saw the captain’s armband being transferred around thrice. In the aftermath of CWG, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh was handed the captaincy, instead of Manpreet. Later, after the Asian Games debacle, in which Sreejesh was criticised for his performance, the captaincy again went back to Manpreet for the World Cup. Like Sardar pointed out, the “core group” saw several changes this year as well.
Despite making so many squad revamps, frequent management changes and replacements of guards, the story in 2018 for Indian hockey remained the same. By the time the year draws to a close, the fans, critics and the sport governing body are left wondering where it went wrong.
Baskaran thinks the fault lies with India’s inability to adapt during the play, especially against the big teams: “The problem is that the players are unable to adapt to situations. When you have played so many games, then there should be no need to tell a player what he should do – by now he should be able to read the opponents. You have played the big oppositions 3-4 times in the year. When is the team going to learn to win? Blaming the coach is not fair when there is no improvements in performance from the players.”
He further adds that the youngsters brought in as replacements into the team were not up to the mark. “Our players underperformed against the big teams. I blamed the entire composition of the team. When you provide opportunities to the youngsters, they should come forward to take the responsibilities,” he said.
A look at India’s record in the 2018 against the higher-ranked teams, and a recap of India’s quarterfinals defeat against the Dutch shows that the World Cup winner is correct in his assessment. Apart from defeating Argentina at Champions Trophy, India have not defeated any higher ranked team this year.
Against the Netherlands, which was touted to be India’s best chance to reach the World Cup semifinal, with the home advantage, coach Harendra’s unit failed to react when the Oranje started pushing deep inside their own half. Instead of trying to return to possession, and push outside their half, the forward line came far too backwards to defend, and were unable to move forward when Simranjeet Singh and Manpreet tried to stitch counter attacks.
The finish at sixth place in the World Cup left many question marks still surrounding the future of the sport in the country in the coming year. But for now, the fans will hope that India could script a new storyline in 2019 with another different chapter.