The Indian hockey team came to the Hockey World League Semi-Final aspiring for the podium; or at least the semi-finals, setting themselves up as contenders for the HWL Finals later this year. But after seven matches and three defeats, two of them to teams well below the pecking order, the team has left in their wake confused coaches, bewildered players, annoyed fans and deep disappointment.
After the 2-3 defeat that sent Canada to the 2018 World Cup as the fifth-placed team, India were left poring over stats that read: penalty corners 10; striking circle penetrations 26; shots on goal 18; players involved in striking circle attacks eight. To any coach in the world, these stats would signify the quality of a team. To the others, it would tell a different story — the Indian team dominated for long periods in each of the four quarters but were unable to achieve the only thing important in sport — victory.
Before the tournament began, Indian coach Roelant Oltmans said, “Teams that score three goals plus usually win 75 percent of the matches.” The three matches that India lost were 1-3 to Holland, 2-3 to Malaysia and 2-3 to Canada. Except for Holland, India dominated the rest of the two matches in every sense of the term. So what is going wrong for India?
The answers are simple and complex. Ric Charlesworth, considered by many to be a ‘super coach’, and who once coached India only to be left betrayed by the Indian hockey establishment said, “There needs to be a want in India to be champions. India needs to have that hunger.” On the quality part, Ric said only thing, “The world would die to have the quality that India possess.”
Quality alone couldn’t give India victory against Canada. In an earlier match in Pool B, India had dismantled Canada 3-0. But on Sunday, the margin could have been wider and could have bordered on the embarrassing for the Canadians. However, they won 3-2 against India. In almost every quarter, India dominated. The forwards did everything but score. But it’s never quite so simple.
Forwards either need to strike or create for the others to strike home. Neither happened. Both the goals against Canada came off penalty corners. And India had 10 of those in the match. Try as they might, Ramandeep Singh, Akashdeep Singh, Mandeep Singh, SV Sunil and Talwinder Singh couldn’t guide a 235 mm sized ball into a space measuring 2.14 metres high and 3.66 metres wide. Across four quarters, over 26 attempts driving into the Canadian striking circle, they couldn’t score.
Canada sat patiently, waited for counters, and scored off set pieces to clinch the match and a place in the 2018 World Cup. India didn’t have the pressure of trying to cement a spot in the World Cup. All they needed was to win against Canada, a team ranked four sports below them at 10th, and finish fifth. In sport, it’s true that anything can happen. But it would have been more believable if India had been outplayed.
Canada scored in the third minute through a penalty corner flicked in by Gordon Johnston, a powerful, tall player who was also in the 2016 Olympic team that drew 2-2 with India at Rio. India then equalized in the seventh minute with a flick from Harmanpreet. In the 22nd minute, India took the lead off another penalty corner flick by Harmanpreet. In between, India couldn’t score of five penalty corners and almost 10 circle penetrations with eight shots on target. Till the end of the second quarter, not a single angled shot was taken on the Canadian goal. Akashdeep, Ramandeep and Sunil’s shots were all on the Canadian goalkeeper’s pads. There were, however, shots that Antoni Kindler really had to stretch for.
Canada hung on, like a climber on a precipice. Mandeep had a chance when he had the ball on top of the striking circle, with no one between him and Kindler. But he didn’t move ahead to beat the Canadian goalkeeper. He shot from his position, and the ball travelled high over the bar. Common sense tells us that India had a bad time, and luck was not on their side. History tells us that issues with the team persist. Every tournament can’t be an experiment ground. In this tournament, teams won against India to qualify for the 2018 World Cup — Malaysia and Canada are prime examples. Having said that, there is no doubt that Canada, and Malaysia in the quarter-final, deserved to win.
Pereira, who scored the second goal against India, said, “Obviously it was a tight game. We have not played particularly well against India since Rio. But we followed the gameplan and didn’t sit back as much as we did in the first Pool game against them. Once we got goals on the scoreboard, we knew we could hold on to that lead.”
In the post-match media briefing, Oltmans pointed at the attitude of the players. “Canada had to win to qualify. We had already qualified. I think the attitude of the players was not at the required level. After beating Pakistan everyone thinks that is the only important game in the tournament. That is bulls**t, because Pakistan at this moment is not the team that you have to beat. You have to beat teams like Malaysia, Canada, other teams, England.” The Indian coach pointed out stats as proof of India’s dominance — 20 shots on goal from India and five for Canada, out of which they scored thrice.
The Indian coach, however, asked for patience. “I have said many times before and it’s not anything new, that we go from three different tournaments with different players, Azlan Shah, here and the tour in August, and after that we will come with the 18 players that will be the strongest team during the Asia Cup and the HWL Finals. So let’s wait and see. We are using these tournaments to come to the 18 players.”
Oltmans is right when he says that this tournament wasn’t a do-or-die one for the Indian team. “Do or die will be in October (Asia Cup),” he said. “Do or die will be in December (HWL Finals). I don’t know if it is good or not.”
Oltmans refused to discuss the negatives or the areas where the Indian team fell short. “There is nothing that I will discuss right now. That is nonsense. We have enough homework given by opponents. One of them is that if you create a lot but not score, at least you have to make sure that your defence stays well organised. With due respect to Canada, looking at all the statistics, we should have never lost this game.” The Indian coach also said that sometimes it’s good not to win because it clearly pinpoints areas that they have to work on.
ndia played in London without Rupinder Pal Singh, who has been India’s most potent penalty corner convertor in recent times. Even Harmanpreet agrees that his absence cost India. The national team were also without their captain and No 1 goalkeeper P Sreejesh other and players like SK Uthappa and Birendra Lakra, even though Surender Kumar is turning out to be a brilliant defender.
One shouldn’t forget that recently Japan beat Australia for the first time in their hockey history at the 2017 Azlan Shah. In the end, processes begin and end with the coach and the support staff. Patience is always a key element. In a recent interview with The Guardian, the newly appointed Southampton manager Mauricio Pellegrino, said, “Experience shows that good results and bad results are part of the same packet. If you’re calm and you win people say: ‘The team is doing well because he’s calm.’ If you lose, they say: ‘He’s so calm he can’t get the team going.’ You can see a prince or a frog in every player, every coach, and everyone.”
At this moment, it’s up to the Indian hockey team and Oltmans to show whether they will remain frogs or turn into princes.