India’s Azlan Shah campaign: New tournament, same errorshttps://indianexpress.com/article/sports/hockey/indias-azlan-shah-campaign-system-error-5653659/

India’s Azlan Shah campaign: New tournament, same errors

Deep-rooted issues in playing style and structure hurt India’s Azlan Shah campaign.

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At the recent national championships in Gwalior, umpires could not spot stick-checks and fouls that are awarded in international tournaments.

With or without a coach, some patterns in Indian hockey remain the same. Be it the habit of conceding late goals, making errors under pressure, being unable to win a match in which they scored first, or, as a new trend is emerging, failing to cope with the pressure of a penalty shootout.

At the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh, India ticked all of the above boxes.

It will be argued that this was a hastily-assembled young team after more than half-a-dozen players picked up injuries at the National Championships in Gwalior.

India also played three out of the six matches with one man less.

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Akashdeep Singh was suspended for two matches following his outburst against the match officials at the World Cup last December. However, since he wasn’t in the Azlan Shah squad, Amit Rohidas and Sumit Kumar’s services were sacrificed against Japan and South Korea respectively.

While that was a forced decision, the team management chose not to risk captain Manpreet Singh, carrying niggles himself, against Poland.

In that context – and also taking into account that the players have barely got any break since the World Cup – reaching the final will be seen as performance that meets expectations.

However, the more critical way of analysing the performances is that India are forming a habit of losing important matches by committing the same errors over and over again. The team’s display in the last 12 months would suffice to back this claim.

Since April last year, India have played the semifinals of Commonwealth and Asian Games, final of the Champions Trophy and quarterfinals of the World Cup. In all those matches, the team has been second best. Saturday’s defeat to South Korea was India’s third via shootouts during this period, having earlier lost to Malaysia and Australia in the Asian Games and Champions Trophy respectively.

Individual mistakes

Most of India’s defeats are a cause of individual mistakes made during a critical stage of a match. Take Amit Rohidas’ performances, for instance. The defender is rated as one of the finest first-rushers in the country. But questions persist over his decision making abilities. His brain-freeze in the semifinals of the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games tilted the match in New Zealand’s favour; in the World Cup quarterfinals, his error led to Netherlands’ winning goal; and on Saturday, he committed another error under pressure, which allowed South Korea to score a late equaliser.

Also against South Korea, the strikers – who scored a couple of dozen goals in the round robin stage – could not convert the dozen chances that came their way in the match that mattered. These errors have ultimately cost coaches their jobs in the past, as Sjoerd Marijne and Harendra Singh would testify.

But these are deep-rooted issues which cannot be changed in a year or two with the national team. The National Championships in Gwalior showed why India continue to struggle internationally. The style and structures employed by most teams in the country’s most important domestic tournament showed how little India has evolved tactically.

Most games were lopsided and played at an intensity that is a far cry from what’s seen at the international level while the umpires could not spot stick-checks and fouls that are routinely awarded in international matches. A former India captain was so disgusted after watching the semifinals that he quipped that none of those players should be ‘allowed anywhere near the national team.’

The quality degrades as you go lower down the domestic levels. Unlike other nations, India’s structure does not expose a player to high-pressure scenarios. Consequently, when faced with such situations in an international match, the players are like rabbits caught in the headlights.

It’s not to say Azlan Shah was a complete write-off for India. Far from it, in fact; especially considering how the last 12 months have panned out. The ability of the young squad to create chances and hold on to long spell of possessions is commendable. What’ll concern the team management is the inability to do something meaningful with it. Among the individuals, Surender Kumar was one of the biggest positives; the defender continues to get better with every tournament and is seen as the next leader of this group.

When Australian Graham Reid takes charge this month – as he is expected to once the bureaucracy confirms his appointment – he will be expected to provide a solution to India’s perennial problems. Chances are, he won’t be able to – at least, not all problems.

Not because he isn’t capable enough but Azlan Shah, like all other tournaments before it, showed the problems that plague Indian hockey are systemic. It isn’t just about the coach.

Target Olympic qualifiers

Bengaluru: Indian women’s hockey team skipper Savita Monday said their Malaysia tour will help improve on key areas ahead of the Olympic qualifiers, slated to be held later this year. An 18-member Indian women’s hockey team will play a five-match series against Malaysia, starting April 4.

“Earlier this year we played in Spain where we did well against the hosts and Ireland. We will carry the same confidence into Malaysia and look to improve on key areas which we felt needed to be worked on after analysing our performance in Spain,” Savita said. The target obviously is the 2020 Games. “Whatever we are doing now is all part of the preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics qualifying event later this year and we are looking to improve as a team as well as our individual performance,” explained Savita.

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Going into the tour with some key players missing due to injuries such as experienced striker Rani, midfielder Namita Toppo and dragflicker Gurjit Kaur, Savita said the tour will be a good platform for the youngsters to step up and make use of the opportunity. —PTI