It’s those four steps to being a rockstar. And it all begins in Jakarta in another 24 hours. The rest have all been gigs in between. India, ranked 5th in the FIH power structure begin their Asian Games campaign, as reigning continental champions in the men’s game. If they retain the gold, it would be for the first time in country's hockey history that an Indian men’s team will pick up back-to-back titles at the Asian Games. That momentum, confidence is what coach Harendra Singh is backing on to give India its first World Cup title since 1975 when the Worlds arrive in India at the end of the year. “Still some time but the Asian Games title puts us on the path to being once again the sport’s rockstar; from 5th to a possible World Cup Final,” says Harendra.
Picking up the World Cup crown requires a special effort, a dawn that hasn’t arrived in 42 years. But the team believes the impetus lies in winning the Asian Games. Four years ago, the title was won under the captainship of Sardar Singh. Now one of the world’s best goalkeeper’s P Sreejesh helms the ship. Then, it was the technically efficient Terry Walsh as coach; now we have Harendra Singh, who mixes emotion, nationalism into his pot of tight defence and counter-attacking ability.
Four years back, India were still struggling with the abysmal, confidence shattering 2012 London Olympics where the team finished 12th, their worst finish in history. It took massive effort to climb back into the consciousness of fans and the world hockey fraternity. Now after winning titles at the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy, Asia Cup, two consecutive silver medals at the Champions Trophy and a steady climb through the rankings, the team to beat at the Asian Games is India.
There is a yawning gap between India (5th) and the rest; Malaysia (12th), Pakistan (13th), South Korea (14th) and Japan (16th). But in a tournament where the winner gets the ticket to Tokyo 2020, surprises are not only a possibility but in the cauldron of a four-quarter intense encounter, pock-marked by counters, penalty corners, misses and spectacular goals, favourites do get startled. “Don’t take anything for granted,” warns Harendra. “Everybody comes to win. Every coach comes with something special. We all see videos, find weakness. They will also find ours. And I do believe rankings have no consequence at such tournaments. For me the surprise might come from Japan.”
Manpreet Singh, a midfielder, whose explosiveness in key moments is what Harendra would rely on, says the recent women’s World Cup and football World Cup are testament to the fact that rankings are best left on paper. “Did you believe that Ireland would reach the final? They were ranked 16th! Did you imagine Croatia would reach the World Football final?” Japan, preparing for the Tokyo Olympics as host is ranked 16th and they would take some inspiration from the Irish ladies.
Pakistan has been assiduously climbing the ladder and if that doesn’t reflect in the rankings don’t get deluded by it. Their record in the Asian Games is nothing short of spectacular. In 15 editions they have eight golds, three silvers and three bronzes; their run from 1958 to 1990 minted seven golds, two silvers in nine consecutive Asian Games, four consecutive golds from 1970 to 1982. Writing for The News, Ijaz Chaudhary, points to an amazing record: “From 1958 to 1982, in the first seven hockey tournaments of the Asian Games, Pakistan lost just one match: the 1966 final against India.”
Pakistan comes to Jakarta, once again with hope. It was here in 1962 that they beat India 2-0 in the final. In Roelant Oltmans, they have a fox, and an old one at that. He has put his reputation on the line by picking up a Pakistan side that he regularly beat as India coach. And now, nothing would give him more pleasure than returning the favour. In the last Asian Games, he stood in India’s corner as high performance director, passing on tips on Terry Walsh. Now all that knowledge of Indian players, and not only skills but mental abilities of each would give Pakistan an added advantage of 20 percent. India might have won the last encounter in the Champions Trophy 4-1. But for almost two quarters, Pakistan held their own, showing discipline, structure and a better organisation. They would have only improved since then. At the Champions Trophy, Oltmans said on the Asian Games: “I would have got another three weeks with the team.”
The Koreans are struggling. But only the naive or ignorant would keep them out of the equation. They are in India’s Pool. And that match would decide the Pool topper. In the Asian Games, we still hold an advantage having played Korea 14 times, winning eight, drawing four and losing two. However, closer look at the stats of the last ten matches show an interesting side to these tactically tight matches. India have played ten, won four, drawn five and lost one. Those drawn matches are crucial. In the 2017 Asia Cup in Dhaka, India drew 1-1 with a 59th minute goal from Gurjant Singh. Korea have the talent of bottling up the midfield and play with fast counters down the flank. It’s the ultra-tight Indian defensive line that should be playing a big role in that crucial Pool match in Jakarta.
Malaysia, coached by Stephen Van Huizen, has been improving since the last two years. In the 2017 Azlan Shah, Malaysia beat India 1-0 and followed it up with a 3-2 victory over India at the Hockey World League (semi-finals). India beat them 6-2 in the Asia Cup league and then won the final by a close 2-1 margin. They have been a steadily improving side, relying on playing the ball fast, swift counter-attacks combined with some pacy flank runs. If there is an Achilles heel, it is their defence. In Fitri Saari, they have a midfielder who has the capability of turning a game around. “We have had a good 2017 and we are going in with confidence for the Asian Games,” says Stephen. The Malaysian coach believes that the target ‘is not the podium but gold.’
In fact, for this generation of Malaysian players, this is their last opportunity to qualify directly for the Olympics. No one in the present team has ever played in an Olympic Games. Stephen believes the Asian Games will be tight. “The gap may look wide when it comes to India and the rest. But we are all going to Jakarta to be that team that will upset India.”
India will try and prevent any upsets at this stage of their preparation for the World Cup or in their quest to be the first team to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games. And it in the counter-attacking ability and an increase in the conversion rate of the penalty corners that India would feel secure. “Yes, I wasn’t happy with the PCs,” says Harendra. “My point is that when we point to extraneous factors, we are making excuses. If you can score one, why can’t you get a second or a third in the match? Chris Ciriello is putting in all efforts. The Test series against New Zealand was good and we tried variations also. I am not asking for the moon. But give me 35 percent conversion and I will win every tournament.”
Former captain Sardar Singh, playing in his third consecutive Asian Games and in the news for his 21.4 Yo-Yo fitness test results, feels India has the structure to retain the title. “It’s about minimising the errors,” he feels. “The back four, the mid three and the forwards are all playing to a format, decided in team meetings. I always say don’t give turn-overs. Keep possession, rotate and create openings.”
Sardar also spoke about his own game, dissected by many in the last one year: “Earlier till the Olympics, I had players who understood my passes before I had relayed them. It took a while for the younger players to play in tandem so either the pass went off the line or to the opposition.”
Sardar wants the team to keep its energy levels through the match. “Irrespective of the opponent, we need to play all out and get goals,” he explains. “All the teams only want to beat us. If we work hard and follow the instructions of the coaches, we will win.”
Rani Rampal still struggles with the emotional fall-out over the recently concluded World Cup. “It’s difficult to sometimes come to terms,” she says. “It’s there in the sub-conscious that we threw away an opportunity. After all it’s the World Cup.”
Apart from that, the focus is completely now on the Asian Games. The team, one of the best balanced sides in recent history, knows they have the elements that can make it win their first ever Asian Games gold since 1982. “Every member of the team knows that we can do it,” she says. India after all won the Asia Cup and then was runners-up to Korea in the Asian Champions Trophy. India leads the world rankings at the Asian level in the women’s too but the gap is not as wide as the men’s. India is highest ranked at 9th followed by South Korea at 10th, China (11th), Japan (14th) and Malaysia (22nd).
Indian women’s coach Sjoerd Marijne says the important thing is not to concentrate on the opposition or on the rankings but ‘on ourselves’. “I know it sounds boring but that’s the way it works,” says Marijne. “It doesn’t matter which team China brings. We know their structure, they will be the same and it is about our own performance. If we defend well and we execute more of our chances then we will be successful and that’s important.”
With the defence playing a stellar role at the World Cup, the midfield rotating and holding the mid zone well, it’s time for the forwards to utilise the chances they would definitely get in each quarter.
Manpreet Singh, the men’s midfielder had an advise for his and the women’s team: “I feel each chance we get needs to be viewed like the last we will get. So the idea is to think fast and utilise that opportunity to the optimum. There shouldn’t be any regrets.”
In nine editions, the Indian women have won gold, one silver and three bronze medals. Importantly, they have made the semi-finals every time; time to buck the trend and repeat the high of 82’. Korea in nine editions has won five golds, three silvers and a fourth place; eight times finalist. China has played seven editions winning three golds, two silvers and two bronzes.
The Sentiong is one of Jakarta’s most polluted rivers. Also called ‘the black river’ locally, it runs right behind the Games Village. The organisers have put a half a mile black net over it, hiding it. However, for the Indian men’s and women’s hockey team, no time to cover up deficiencies. It’s time to seize the moment. As Harendra says, “If you win, it’s your legacy for ever.”
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Updated Date: Aug 18, 2018 20:09:00 IST