It would be two days short of 50 since that heart-breaking defeat to Malaysia in the semi-finals of the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta. Big teams get beaten, lose close matches; upsets are, at times, the life-blood of a competition. Slaying a big team rejuvenates a tournament, but in that defeat for India, there was torment, an agony that set in motion — as it always happens in Indian hockey — a series of knee-jerk reactions that create an atmosphere nothing short of calamitous.
Immediately after the semi-final loss, unnamed sources inside Hockey India raised doubts on every aspect of the team even to the point that a change in coaching staff was sought. With hardly a couple of months left for the World Cup, better sense prevailed and Harendra Singh still found himself as India coach. Sardar Singh announced his retirement, angry and frustrated that the blame was squarely put on his shoulder. Senior players were ticked off for not showing intensity or leadership during moments of pressure.
Instead of rallying around the boys, putting trust and faith in their abilities, fissures were created. PR Sreejesh was removed as captain and Manpreet Singh reinstated. A team that seemed like putting together a winning mentality, especially after the Champions Trophy where they lost narrowly to Australia in the final, now was on the verge of a collective breakdown. An administration that should have understood the fragility of the team after having lost an Olympic berth at Jakarta chose to point fingers. Eventually, even the High-Performance Director, David John, was sacked from the World Cup selection committee for being overtly critical of the seniors. The newly-elected President of Hockey India, Mushtaque Ahmad, labelled John’s rant as ‘biased.’ All because India lost to Malaysia in a Games where gold was taken for granted.
Now the team has flown to Oman where they play the Asian Champions Trophy, a tournament quite realistically should have been pushed to 2019, a year quite dry for want of tournaments. Rattled by injures to Birendra Lakra, who probably won’t play the World Cup, and then SV Sunil, who thankfully has been cleared to play after adequate rest and rehabilitation, the percentage of intensity in Oman will have to be watched. Can India go all out in Muscat, win the trophy they have won twice before and resurrect some confidence?
Harendra gives a diplomatic answer. His demeanour is already a casualty of the Asian Games. “We are going for gold” at the Asian Games is now a watered down to “we will play each match as it comes” and “every team wants to win.” It’s surprising that he should feel the pressure after taking the team to the Champions Trophy final and almost winning it, but the environment in Indian hockey sometimes gets so toxic that being on guard is at times better than being foolishly confident.
Muscat is a preparation ground for Harendra and his staff. Even though Rupinderpal Singh, SV Sunil, and Vivek Prasad are absent, positional tinkering and variations in terms of penalty corners will be seen. Harendra’s biggest worry at this stage is consistency in all the three groups in the team playing with systematic rhythm — forwards, midfield and defence. Going back to that game against Malaysia, for sure not a watershed moment, yet a test case for what went wrong – fluidity went missing, chances were not capitalised on, are crucial moments were not siezed. At that level, in a semi-final and final, not much would separate two teams; Malaysia found that against Japan in the Asian Games final.
Irrespective of the fact that India had beaten the eventual Asian Games gold medallists Japan 8-0 in the Pool match, solace doesn’t come easy for this team. The answers lie in the World Cup. And the road swings by Muscat. The team management will have a hard look at the defence. Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Surender Kumar pick themselves for the World Cup while the fight is for the other slots – Jarmanpreet Singh is back in the team after the Champions Trophy, and he will do his best to impress the selectors and coach. At Breda in the Champions Trophy, he showed enough heart, and hopefully in the camp, he has settled his impulse to swing his stick that has often forced umpires to whip out a card or award a penalty corner to the opposition. He is a big lad and has the ability to overlap into attack from either flank, creating space upfront for the forwards. Hardik, Gurinder and Kothajit would also be in contention.
It’s in the midfield that one of the big challenges for this team lies. With Sardar’s retirement, the midfield is open to variations. Manpreet will surely be back in his central role, pushing the attack and also falling back in defence. With Vivek Prasad not there, Sumit Sharma gets an opportunity, but it is difficult to see an Indian team without Vivek at the moment even though when it comes to defensive duties, Vivek has his weaknesses. It’s in attack he is extremely potent. With the captain’s armband once again with Manpreet, it will hopefully inspire the Punjab boy to have India retain the title they won in Kuantan in 2016 under the then coach Roelant Oltmans. Manpreet was also the captain at the 2013 Kakamighara Asian Champions Trophy when India finished 5th — that would be a memory he would want to erase by winning the trophy.
It will be extremely interesting to see how the forwards shape up with Gurjant back in the team after the Champions Trophy. With his kind of muscular play combined with a sixth sense of where to expect the ball, Gurjant might be the ace that Harendra would look to getting some field goals. Akashdeep and Mandeep Singh have been at the receiving end of some sharp criticism but to look beyond them at the moment would be foolish. Akashdeep’s skills give the team options while Mandeep’s positioning needs to improve. His play at times is frustrating – getting some brilliant goals and at the same time missing chances provided on a platter.
India’s main task at Muscat would be to show confidence to take on elite Asian teams and play with the freedom that was evident against Japan at the Asian Games; a match in which nothing went wrong. The passing was super, extreme pressure quarter after quarter and finishing that broke the spine of a Japanese team that has been on the upswing in the past one year. China would be missing here as Oman come in as hosts and the sixth team but the rest – Pakistan, South Korea, Malaysia and Japan will be ready to take on the highest ranked team, the World No 5 India. Roelant Oltmans, the nomad among world coaches, now with Malaysia after flirting with Pakistan for a few months, believes India’s ranking will ensure other teams want to break them down. “Of course, I would want to see Malaysia repeat the Asian Games result but the expectations are on India as they are higher ranked,” said the Dutchman.
Japan’s coach, another Dutchman Sigfried Aikman, would want to repeat the success of Jakarta. The Japanese are not playing the World Cup in Bhubaneswar and for them not to be in the elite tournament despite being the Asian Games champions must be puzzling. Aikman, a man who thinks tactically and then deploys the talent, is looking to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. “It’s our Olympics and hockey should perform at home,” he said at Jakarta. “But, yes, playing the World Cup would have been great for the team.” Despite bad results early on when he joined the coaching establishment in Japan, sticking with him has paid off.
Pakistan and South Korea, giants on the continent not so far back, seem to have slipped considerably. Korea is not in the World Cup either while Pakistan will be playing in Bhubaneswar. A good result here will give a much-needed boost to Pakistan, especially after losing Roelant Oltmans as coach.
Oltmans also thinks that the tournament should have been played in 2019. “But at the same time, we all need some good matches before the World Cup,” said the Malaysian coach.
For India, a team still hurting, moving on for this talented group will eventually happen. Harendra believes in keeping the flock together, a key part of his philosophy as coach. Maybe, a win at the Asian Champions Trophy could prove to be a catharsis.