The world’s top eight teams have assembled here in Bhubaneswar. Seven are competing for the title. One among them is fighting to find its identity. That India are Asia’s best isn’t even a debate anymore. Sure, there were a few questions after the team lost to Malaysia — twice — this year. But the Asia Cup win last month took care of the doubts that were starting to creep in. Beyond the continent, however, is where India’s struggle starts.
Sample this: Not counting bilaterals and Asian opponents, India have played 46 competitive matches since the 2014 World League Finals. Out of those, they have won just 8, drawn as many and lost 30. The stats get depressing if you dig deep. In the same time period, India has an inferior win-loss record against each of the teams which are here for the World League Final.
The head-to-head against Australia, against whom they get the campaign underway on Friday, is the worst, losing 11 out of the 13 matches while winning just 1. It’s the same story against Belgium, Germany, Holland, Argentina and even England – who are perhaps the weakest of the lot.
The other side of this argument is the podium finishes the team has managed in the last three years. But again, for all their domination at the continental level, India has won just two medals in a global tournament, one of which — a bronze — came at the 2015 edition of this tournament.
So the first parameter to judge the team’s progress will be to see if they can match, or better, that performance. However, India just needs to look at the heightened level of competition to realize just how tough their task is. There has never been such an unpredictable time in world hockey. No one has the stranglehold over the rest like Australia did some time back. And, at least in the top 8, there aren’t clear-cut favourites or an underdog.
The Olympics are the best example of this, where the final was played between Argentina and Belgium, two teams who weren’t anywhere close to being top hockey nations until a decade ago. England and Spain have constantly been punching above their weight frequently while for their sheer pedigree, Australia, Germany and Holland can never be discounted. “The margin of error today is very small,” Australia captain Mark Knowles says. “Top 8-9 teams in the world are so close. We saw in Rio no.7 team in the world beat no.6.”
In all this top-level churning, India – to put it bluntly – do not know where they stand in the world. Most teams fear them because of the unpredictability factor. On their day, India have beaten the best – the group-stage win at the Olympics over eventual gold medallists Argentina being a case in point. On the days they switch off, they have found it tough to beat even a minnow like Canada.
Marijne admits for his team, ranked sixth at present, the task has only gotten tough to break into the top-five and stay there. “I think there were always 4-5 countries who were close, and now it is getting more and more. Canada and Malaysia too did well. It’s getting closer that’s why it’s getting more interesting for global hockey. It will get more difficult for India to break into the club,” he says. Roelant Oltmans tried and failed at it. His — as Hockey India put it — lack of ambition and unwillingness to give young players a chance saw him getting the boot two months ago.
The new team management, with Marijne as the chief coach and Australian David John as the high performance director, are not making any promises about the performance yet. But they have infused young blood in the squad.
Forced for some positions, strategic for a few others. Sardar Singh, considered irreplaceable till a few months ago, finds himself out of favour. Captain Manpreet Singh will play as the centre-half, a position Sardar made his own. At the Asia Cup, he was played in the defence where he is replaced by Rupinderpal Singh, who returns after spending five months in the rehab following a hamstring injury.
There are, however, some exciting additions to the squad. There is already a lot of anticipation among the locals at the prospect of three Odiya defenders — Amit Rohidas, Birendra Lakra and Dipsan Tirkey — sharing the field. They’ve been the biggest draws, with fans from as far as Sundergarh and Rourkela expected to travel to watch them play.
Tirkey, one of the finds from India’s junior World Cup winning squad, has grown in stature along with Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar, who too were among the best players last December. In the goal, Suraj Karkera and Akash Chikte have been tasked with the responsibility of the filling the large void created following an injury to PR Sreejesh.
Half of India’s squad has not played a tournament as tough as this. Now, they’ve all been suddenly thrown at the deep end. But Marijne isn’t unconcerned. For India, he knows, this tournament is more about find its true place in world hockey. “I know they will be nervous. It is natural,” Marijne says. “But I can’t wait to find out how they play. I am really curious to know where we really stand in the world.”