Max Caldas was ROFL-ing. It was tough to say if he was laughing because his team had won, or at the excuses his counterpart Harendra Singh offered. Perhaps, it was a bit of both. India’s 43-year wait for a World Cup semifinal appearance had just extended by another four years, and according to India’s coach, it was all because of umpiring. “If they don’t want to improve, we will (continue to) face these types of results,” he said, adding that India were essentially playing a 13v11 game, accusing the umpires of favouring the Dutch in Thursday’s quarterfinal.
Harendra’s emotional outburst didn’t end there. For years, various Indian coaches have used the circle penetration stat to point out their dominance in a game, irrespective of the result. Because of their quick, counter-attacking style, the number of times India raid the opponent’s ‘D’ is often higher but on Thursday, Netherlands had outclassed India in that department.
But tonight, the definition of circle penetration seemed to have changed. “We count it only when the pass reaches its target. Else, it’s not a circle penetration…” Harendra said. Caldas, sitting a couple of feet away, couldn’t hide his amusement. He was rolling in his seat and laughing, clutching his face and closing his eyes. His advice for Harendra, and Indian hockey, was straightforward: “Would’ve, should’ve, could’ve doesn’t exist in hockey. The umpires don’t play the game. We don’t review umpires… we review our own performance.”
India will, at some point, review their performance. But what will be reviewed and how different will it be from the previous ones? There’s this sense of déjà vu every time India lose a tournament; like a Christopher Nolan flick in which everything moves at a rapid, head-spinning pace but when it reaches the climax, you realize nothing has really moved at all.
The Indian hockey team, in the last few years, has improved significantly in terms of fitness. The training methods have evolved and the diet has transformed. They play at a high tempo and use a structure that resembles a European team. Yet, in terms of results – and that is what eventually matters – they seem to be stuck in time with the same old excuses and the same old review processes.
Hockey India seem to be in no rush, though. After all, they have six months to find out what’s broken and needs to be fixed because till June, India aren’t scheduled to play any tournament. For all other countries, the World Cup is an important pit-stop en route to the Olympics. India, on the other hand, designed everything around the World Cup. “(But) our planning was till the World Cup. Now we will sit with Hockey India and plan for the future,” coach Harendra said.
Ironically, it’s not clear if Harendra himself will remain in Hockey India’s scheme of things. There are speculations that his contract, which was till World Cup, will not be renewed. There’s no surety if high performance director David John will continue in his role either. To add to uncertainty, the players do not know what they’ll do for next six months.
India’s decision to opt out of the Pro League, a home-and-away competition for world’s elite, means they do not have any assignment lined up till June 6, when they will host FIH Series Finals – a new tournament comprising second-rung teams. Harendra said they hope to travel to countries where Pro League will take place and play Test series with those teams. Whether the teams will accommodate India in their already busy schedule, though, remains the big question.
India, in fact, have been an afterthought for many in the last two weeks. Every conversation with players and coaches to discuss the tournament favourites ended with them concluding – without much conviction – with something like ‘India, too, can spring a surprise’, or ‘the crowd can swing it in India’s favour.’
It was almost like they felt obliged to include India in the favourites’ list just because they are the host nation. But they barely feel threatened by the team’s technical abilities. India, they know, are a team that will break down and lose focus at some point in a match. Netherlands forward Jeroen Hertzberger was pretty sharp in his assessment. “Indian players need to realize that a quarter lasts for 15 minutes and not 14 minutes, 55 seconds,” he said, referring to Netherlands’ late first quarter equalizer on Thursday.
Thinking, the world knows by now, is not an Indian players’ forte. They got a coach, Sjoerd Marijne, removed because he told them to ‘think for themselves’. Indians might not be used to it, but this is a pattern across all top teams. “Your practice environment has to replicate the pressure of big matches so you are constantly putting them in such situations. If you want to be good thinking under pressure, then you have to practice thinking under pressure,” England coach Danny Kerry says.
So Netherlands, for instance, play nine-a-side matches on half or three-quarters of a field. It’s an exercise designed to improve the players’ ability to think and react quickly since they have very little space and time to work the ball. “It’s a lot of cerebral training,” Hertzberger says. “Eventually, it’s the players who have to think on the pitch under pressure. So you train for that.”
In contrast, on the eve of their World Cup quarterfinal, Harendra and his assistant Chris Ciriello were teaching their players how to trap, how to hold the hockey stick and where to stand inside the ‘D’. Those who made mistakes had to do pushups as a playful punishment.
These are some shortcomings we’ve known for decades. Yet, despite the crushing defeat, it doesn’t feel like a disastrous campaign, like the Asian Games. A sixth place finish – their best since 1994 World Cup – shows there’s some progress made. What lacks is the final push to challenge the world’s best in tournaments that matter – World Cup and the Olympics. Gonzalo Peillat, the Argentine talisman, says that the Indian team will progress if there’s continuity.
He isn’t the only one to say that. Australia coach Colin Batch, his Spanish counterpart Frederic Soyez and several others have reiterated what Peillat has said over the last fortnight. “If India can retain the core of the team and staff, they will be tough challenger in Tokyo,” Peillat says.
But he also has a grouse. Hockey India is considering turning the Hockey India League into 5s, the T20 version of the sport. While that will impact the earnings of several players across the world, it’s likely to end up affecting India the most. Former Australia captain Glenn Turner feels the HIL was one of the biggest reasons that Indian players could overcome the fear of facing sides like Netherlands and Australia. Ask Peillat how he feels about the decision? “It’s sh*t,” he says. A sentiment, perhaps, that most Indian fans must be feeling right now.