Moments before they faced Olympic champions Argentina, the 17 Indian players, chief coach Harendra Singh and his support staff formed a semi-circle around Sardar Singh, went down on one knee and bowed. Sardar, making his 300th appearance, stood in front of his teammates with folded hands, blushing; just wanting to get on with the game.
Harendra has a thing for theatrics. But that’s also how he gets the best out of his players. He’d taken over a divided team so a little fun to get them back together does no harm. The smiles, which had disappeared in the last few months, returned on the faces of the players. And it would stay like that for rest of the week.
The impact of that was visible on field. India played one of their finest games in recent memory to hold Australia to a 1-1 draw in regulation time of the Champions Trophy final in Breda, Holland. But their best wasn’t enough to upstage the world champions, who defended the title they won two years ago with a 3-1 win via penalty shoot-out.
This was a repeat of the 2016 Champions Trophy final, when – like Sunday – Australia won via tie-breaker after being held 1-1 in normal time. But unlike that match, where Australia had an upper hand for majority of the duration, India would be disappointed they couldn’t wrap up Sunday’s final in the four quarters.
They played a surprisingly aggressive game, applying high press technique and choking the Australians for space. They also made good use of the possession, entering the circle with positive intent.
With a little bit of luck, and precision, the scoreline could have been different – Mandeep Singh’s shot in the third quarter hit the upright, Manpreet Singh missed an open chance from two yards out, SV Sunil couldn’t trap cleanly when he was unmarked in front of the goal while Australian goalkeeper Tyler Lovell pulled off two point-blank saves.
The only aspect of the game India were woeful at was the shoot-outs, and they ultimately paid the price for it. But result alone shouldn’t be the parameter to judge the team that’s rebuilding itself after a disastrous Commonwealth Games. It was about how the team performed, even in defeats. And Harendra would be happy with what he has seen.
India defeated the Olympic champions, gave a mighty scare to the world champions, troubled European heavyweights Belgium and Holland and maintained their supremacy over neighbours Pakistan. The round-robin defeat to Australia was the only bad match.
So what has changed so drastically in just two months? Style-wise not so much, but a lot in terms of personnel. Sjoerd Marijne, who was shown the door after the Commonwealth Games, was at times pig-headed in his selections, trying to make too many changes together, which not just spoilt the balance of the team but also created an atmosphere of insecurity in the team. That led to Marijne losing the confidence of his players, which showed in the way they played at the Commonwealth Games.
There’s no disputing the logic of the previous coaching staff, which also included high performance director David John, to blood more youngsters. Under the previous set of players, the team was stagnating and was repeatedly getting beaten on pace. But they chucked out the wrong players. Harendra, while ensuring greenhorns like Vivek Sagar Prasad and Dilpreet Singh retained their place, brought back Sardar, Birendra Lakra, Surender Singh and Ramandeep Singh. It gave the team the balance that was missing at the Commonwealth Games.
The players justified their inclusion as well. Ramandeep scored one and set-up another in the win over Pakistan – he, unfortunately, fractured his knee and looks set to miss the Asian Games. Surender came up with timely interceptions inside the ‘D’ while Lakra provided the impetus going forward.
Sardar, despite missing the penalty in the final, was influential throughout the tournament. Instead of making him play as a free man, Harendra brought Sardar back as a centre-half. It meant India had one quality player – Manpreet being the other – at all times in this position. At the Commonwealth Games, there was a gaping hole in the middle whenever Manpreet was taken off, as Vivek lacked the experience to distribute balls or anticipate opponent’s moves.
These tweaks in squad selection worked perfectly for Harendra, as was evident with the wins over Argentina and Pakistan as well the hard-fought draws against Netherlands and Australia (not counting the shoot-outs result).
CWG, an aberration
The performance here would assure the team that the Commonwealth Games was just an aberration. After decades of under-performance, India’s graph has been steadily moving in the right direction in the last three years. They have managed podium finishes in tournaments such as the World League and Champions Trophy but that’s as far as they go in terms of results.
In tournaments that matter, the Olympics and World Cup, the results have stayed stagnant (after winning the silver at 2016 Champions Trophy, India finished 8th at the Rio Olympics). That’s mainly because big teams habitually raise their game in big tournaments, something India haven’t managed to do in the recent years.
The Champions Trophy silver is a strong foundation for Harendra to build on. An Asian Games gold should now be a realistic target – also because it will ensure a spot at the Tokyo Olympics. But World Cup will be the true litmus test for Harendra and his players.
Champions trophy: Takeaways for India
Over-reliance on Sreejesh: He was the only reason India reached the final of the tournament that had the world’s heavyweights. Sreejesh pulled off multiple important saves, especially in the do-or-die match against Holland. His error in the final led to the only goal Australia scored, but it also showed the over-reliance on him.
Back-up goalkeepers: Until a year ago, India were sweating over back-ups for Sreejesh. Not anymore, though. At the Commonwealth Games, Suraj Karkera gave a good account of himself every time he was called on and in Breda, Krishan Pathak – a member of India’s 2016 junior World Cup-winning squad – did fairly well. They may not be of Sreejesh’s calibre yet, but India at least has options now.
Mandeep’s misses: Mandeep has a habit of getting into great goal-scoring positions but he is also guilty of missing several sitters. It has been the case for several years now and it seems the coaches have been persisting with him only because there are no proper replacements available. With Ramandeep Singh injured, it’s even more important for Mandeep to step up.
Youngsters: One of the biggest takeaways for the team was the performance of young players. Dilpreet Singh and Vivek Sagar Prasad are improving with every passing tournament – the latter even scored the equalising goal in the final against Australia. Jermanpreet Singh was impressive as a half-back while Surender Singh justified his inclusion after being omitted for the CWG.
Drag-flicks: India’s penalty corner conversion rate remains abysmal. Harmanpreet Singh isn’t effective while Amit Rohidas and Varun Kumar aren’t reliable back-ups. It might result in Rupinderpal Singh making a swift return to the team but Chris Cirello, the Australian drag-flicker who is now India’s assistant coach, and Jugraj Singh have their task cut out.