Monday, June 16, 2014

India’s World Cup campaign isn’t a disaster recipe, holds promise for the future!

The ‘feel-good factor’ about the Indian men’s hockey team has been conspicuously missing for years. Remember, it’s been more than 34 years that the Indian hockey team managed a podium finish in a major international hockey tourney – the 1980 Moscow Olympics was the last time India bagged a medal (a gold) in a big-ticket event, of course it’s a different matter altogether that the triumph is not talked about ‘glowingly’ as the event featured a depleted field with many top teams giving the event a miss.

The 1975 World Cup win before that was the biggest achievement of India on the hockey pitch. Since all these years, there is optimism every time India heads into a major event, which translates into a pall of gloom when they return home be it an Olympics, World Cup or Champions Trophy.

The feelings were no less than different this time around as hockey buffs were expecting the team to have a ‘respectable’ World Cup if not anything ‘more’. Mind you, Hockey India (HI) on its part has done its bit to ensure the team got the best possible ‘preparation’ for the big-ticket event. One is no way trying to defend Hockey India, but only seeing things in perspective. A long-drawn two phased camp sandwiched by an exposure trip to the Netherlands a month before the World Cup (last year also the team went to the Netherlands for an exposure trip before the Hockey World League Semifinal Round in Rotterdam) under head coach Terry Walsh smacked off a feeling that the team was indeed ‘well prepared’ to come hard at their opponents in The Hague.
Cynics often go into an overdrive every time the Indian team returns from major events with a disappointing showing. Merely flaying the team won’t serve any purpose as there is a need to see things in perspective. It hardly helps anyone dwelling ‘sarcastically’ on our ‘struggle’ all these years. We have this propensity to pin the ‘blame’ on the coach when our team performs poorly. Before we walk the ‘coach criticism’ path it’s imperative to realize that the team’s head coach Terry Walsh had taken charge only in January and a five-month stint would be grossly unfair to judge his coaching credentials.

Foreign coaches in India often get the ‘stick’ for not delivering no matter whether a coach is four, five months or one-year old in his job. Terry Walsh will surely experience that like some his predecessors like Jose Brasa and Michael Nobbs did. No coach has a magic wand to turn around the fortunes of a team and the same applies to the captain of a side – in this case Sardar Singh. A coach or a captain is as good as his team.
Delving deep into India’s 2014 World Cup performanc, one gets the feeling that the team showed a fair amount of assurance in possession with much more clean trapping and passing unlike the last few events where these aspects came to the fore. We all know about our ‘vulnerable’ defence, but at Hague, we saw something new – our inability to clear the ball out of defence after an opposition raid. Until now, we are used to seeing our defenders committing sloppy errors and leaking penalty corners or goals, but at the 2014 World Cup we saw this new flaw of struggling to clear the ball out of their own half, which had put immense pressure on their defence as one rival attack turned into three, four attacks or even more! Much to the hockey fans’ frustration it gradually became a pattern in all matches as the ball was pinned in the Indian half for most part, translating into one-way traffic.
No praise can be high for Indian goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, who frustratingly watched his defenders mess up inside their own ‘D’ ensuring he had a busy day throughout the tournament, save for the first half against Malaysia and to some extent the 9-10th place classification tie against Korea, where the Indian forwards gave him a ‘breather’ with their sustained attacks ensuring the ball did not travel to the Indian ‘D’ as frequently as was the case in other games.
Had not for Sreejesh’s sturdy defending in the cage, India could have been in danger of settling for a wooden spoon finish like they did at the 2012 London Olympics. Against higher ranked teams like Belgium and England, India did held their own and never looked ‘inferior’ against their opposition, but all the ‘match competitiveness’ diluted as the Indian defence cracked under sustained rival attacks – ‘sustained’ because of their inability to clear the ball out of defence after one raid led to a flurry of cracks at the Indian goal.
The Indians showed all their flair when they moved upfront, but their forays were restricted as the opposition took full toll of India’s vulnerability in defence and kept parking themselves in our half. The midfield appeared almost non-existent with skipper Sardar Singh seen manning multiple roles. The roles of Manpreêt Singh, Kothari Singh, Birendra Lakra were not distinct as they were at most times juggling defence and midfield workload with the forwards not getting adequate midfield support.
The forwardline did not found the desired support from the midfield save for Sardar Singh, who worked like a demon. The strike force did not create enough circle penetrations, which meant that there was no alarming pressure on the opposition defence. Despite our feeble defence India looked poised to play out draws against Belgium and England before late goals in both games ‘silenced’ us. Against Spain, India squandered a lead to play out a scratchy draw with our defence again looking toothless.
The only time the Indian forwards seemed to have a busy day in office was against Malaysia – the plethora of chances India created should have seen them win by a big margin – but then ‘missed chances’ bug is ingrained in us and little was done to change it. SV Sunil and Dharmvir Singh – two of the senior-most forwards let the team down, while Akashdeep Singh enhanced his stature as a goal-poacher from whatever opportunities he got. Mandeep Singh exudes promise but has a lot to learn, especially his tactical play given the natural skills he is blessed with, but with experience he should emerge as a better player. Lalit Upadhyay and Yuvraj Walmiki showed promise whenever they were on the pitch.
Our fullbacks deserve to be panned for their brittle defending, but also for their poor conversion rate. The 2 ‘R’s – Rupinder and Raghunath – cut a sorry figure – India did not score a single goal from 18 penalty corners – which just goes to show that these guys have plenty to learn from the likes of Tom Boon, Gonzalo Peillat, Andy Hayward, Mink van der Weerden and Chris Ciriello in terms of producing higher percentage of PC conversions. It’s not just the PC conversion that called for criticism, even PC injection posed a new headache for the team – time and again we floundered injecting, which made things ‘tough’ for us.
One felt that rolling substitutions are optimized by most international sides, but in case of India Terry Walsh adopted a conservative approach. There is a need to be more flexible with rolling substitutions - modern hockey is a fast-paced affair and keeping player fresh is so important and I’m sure Walsh will be generous with rolling substitutions in future.
India definitely looked like the team who deserved to be in the top-8, but late goals in twin matches and ‘consistent’ defensive lapses combined to ensure they did not. With the year 2014 having a packed international schedule, India will be better off in quickly picking up the pieces and work towards delivering a much improved performances in the forthcoming 2014 Commonwealth Games, 2014 Asian Games and 35th Champions Trophy.
We all know 8th ranked India do not have the ‘ammunition’ to take on the might of Australia, Netherlands and Germany head-on, but we have surely have a team which is on par with the likes of 4th ranked England, 5th ranked Belgium, 6th ranked New Zealand and 7th ranked Korea - with better tactical play India can beat these teams.

India should look at the ‘bigger’ picture and must realize that they cannot break into the top-three straightway. The team’s immediate focus should be on beating teams like England, Belgium, New Zealand, Korea or even rapidly improving Argentina and up their world ranking – a ranking leap gives any team dollops of confidence and self-belief and once India improve its ranking, they will be much more ‘mentally strong’ to match the Aussies, Dutch and the Germans. The idea should be to break into the top-six bracket and gradually take it from there.
Let’s not press the ‘emotional’ button and think ‘all is over with Indian hockey’ just because of a 9th place finish in the 2014 World Cup. The road ahead will be a bumpy one for sure, but not insurmountable! Given all the pessimism around I dare say that the Indian team have made significant strides, however small it may be, ever since the wooden spoon finish at the 2012 London Olympics. Clearly, India’s World Cup campaign isn’t a disaster recipe and only holds out promise for the future!

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