Hockey World Cup 2018: Anticipation hangs heavy as hosts India begin quest for elusive trophy against South Africa

As the pulsating match-eve gives way to a dawn of delicious possibilities, it is tempting to think what must have gone through Harendra Singh’s head as he tossed and turned in the privacy of his hotel room, long after lights went out at the Kalinga Stadium. The coach of the national team rests on quicksand these days, and with a home World Cup to deal with, sleep might well be his unlikeliest companion.

After weeks of practice and months of hype, the showtime has arrived on the wings of pressure and expectation. All those hours clocked in the gym, all the tough selection calls, all the knowledge stacked in the muscle memory have come to define this singular moment, and to think that Harendra’s brain would have courted calm amid the milieu is to anoint him to superhuman levels.

He walked in the press room jovial and jaunty. Jokes were exchanged with familiar faces and greetings were extended with earthy warmth. Manpreet Singh, on whose shoulders lie the task of controlling the team – and the game – stood in cheerful seclusion. The contrast in coach and captain’s demeanours though ends right there. Both would know that team’s recent form is far from top-notch, and lack of experience might prove costly. Nevertheless, both did rather well to present a brave face.

“They are not young. The Constitution allows you to marry once you are 18,” Harendra said of his wards. “They are the future of Indian hockey. They are not boys, they are men. Once you enter the national camp and are chosen to wear India shirt, you have enough experience to play.” Booming bluster meets feral passion. He could well be addressing a bunch of Spartan warriors.

Harendra has a point though. Seven players in the current squad played the 2016 Junior World Cup in Lucknow, and another seven played the 2014 World Cup. The players have a decent experience of playing in high-pressure matches in that sense.

Former India player Sandeep Singh concurs. “See, India will surely miss the experience of those who are not in the team, but you gain experience only by playing. The modern game is fitness oriented, and considering the fatigue that a player faces over the course of 60 minutes, it is important to blood in youngsters who don’t tire easily,” he told Firstpost.

“In the 2010 World Cup, runners-up Germany were the youngest side in the tournament. So that explains a lot,” he says. Interestingly, Harendra cited the example of the same German team to end the experience-versus-youth debate. He went back to Punjab Gold Cup of 2009 where the visitors were blanked by the local team.

“Everyone thought that we had just beaten Germany so when the (2010) Hockey World Cup was held at home, we would do great. But everyone knows what happened. (India finished eighth and Germany were runners-up). The average age of that German side was 22.7 years. The average age of this Indian side is 23.4 years.”

On Wednesday, there is little doubt that India will start favourites against South Africa – a team ranked ten places below them. Complacency though would be the last thing on India’s mind, especially after the chastening reversal against Malaysia in the Asian Games semi-final.

“That is history,” the coach said. “The team has learned from that experience and moved on. It was a collective failure and not the fault of one or two individuals. The only time we discussed it was in the meeting we had just after that match, and we decided then that we won’t let it haunt us. That is a hard fact. It’s perhaps time you should move on too.”

Head to head, India hold a clear advantage over their rivals. In the 42 matches that the teams have played against each other, the hosts have won 25 times, while South Africa have tasted success eight times. The two teams have also played nine draws.

In World Cups, India are yet to lose to South Africa, though in four World Cup matches, only once have India managed to beat them; the rest three ended in draws. Their last five matches throw a much closer stat – both teams have beaten each other twice, and one game was drawn. Rankings, hence, will matter little when Manpreet Singh’s team takes the field on Wednesday.

“I feel South Africa will play physical and attack us on the counter. However, under no circumstances are we going to compromise with our attacking brand of hockey,” Harendra declared.

“Everyone is a pundit here but did anyone of us predict that Ireland would reach the Women’s World Cup final and Croatia would make it to FIFA World Cup final? I don’t know what the future holds, but we are not going to alter our style of hockey.”

However, experts such as Viren Resquinha prefer to take a more realistic look at the team’s chances. Resquinha, part of the 2006 World Cup team and currently an expert with Sony Pictures, says the team must learn to handle pressure.

“Our recent form has not been very good, and over the last couple of decades, we have not been able to perform under pressure. I have not seen anything this year to see that change. So, it’s going to be tough for the Asian teams to win a medal, or for that matter, reach the semis. If any Asian team can come close, it’s going to be India,” he said.

“I won’t put India among the top five favourites. Undoubtedly, we have a chance to make it to the semis, but I don’t think we are one of the favourites to win the World Cup or even get a medal. There are other teams that are better placed than us, both in terms of calibre and current form. But you never know. If Argentina can win the Olympics, anything can happen.”

Indian hockey teams, over the years, have struggled to ace penalty corner conversions, besides being guilty of conceding late goals.

At World Cups since 1990, India have won 187 penalty corners, but managed to convert only 32 times. In percentage terms, it’s just 17 per cent. However, things could be different this time with India boasting of three drag-flickers in Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Amit Rohidas.

“India’s drag-flicking trio is pretty good, despite the absence of the seasoned Rupinder Pal Singh,” said Sandeep, an ace short-corner expert of his time.

“I think teams might know a fair bit about Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar, but Amit Rohidas can be a surprise weapon. Not many teams would have seen him, and he can be a good option. Our flickers need to try different variations, and of what I have seen, I think they are pretty capable,” the former India captain explained.

Harendra’s target in terms of penalty conversion is “24-38 per cent”. On match-eve, Harmanpreet and Varun were seen practising certain variations with their flicks, with Lalit Upadhyay regularly deflecting angled short-corner hits into the net. It would be interesting to see if India uses any of those variations against South Africa.

On the issue of allowing goals in dying minutes or final quarter, the coach said, “We always discuss that India concede in the last minute to lose, but I don’t think it has happened in the last 4-5 years, except Asian Games 2018. This virus affects not just the Indian team, it’s with every team. I can give you history where other teams also have lost the same way.

“Of course, one way to tackle is better ball possession. But I won’t stop my boys from initiating a move if they sense an opportunity even in last moments of the game, provided they have enough strength in their legs to foil a counterattack. I think we can attack even in last quarter or last minute.”

Come Wednesday evening, all the pre-tournament talk will hold little value. Starting well is vital, and the coach said getting off the blocks early will reduce the pressure by 40-50 percent.

A sell-out crowd of 15,000 in the refurbished Kalinga Stadium will be India’s unabashed 12th man. Harendra said his boys will enjoy the moment and the stage; his South African counterpart Mark Hopkins thinks the pressure will be on India to go for the kill.

In a region steeped in history – where the unexpected valour of local soldiers shook the conscience of a certain King Ashoka and sent him on the path of peace and self-discovery – India will hope to write their own legend. Game time.

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