Commonwealth Games 2018: Flawed team selection and approach behind Indian hockey team's poor show at Gold Coast

Drawing parallels between Macbeth and Indian hockey will raise quite a few eyebrows, but bear with me. In a recent interview, Jo Nesbo, the Norwegian thriller writer and the latest author to turn Macbeth into contemporary fiction, said “Macbeth is essentially about the struggle for power that takes place in a gloomy, stormy, crime noir-like setting and in a dark paranoid human mind.”

Over the years, Indian hockey has been a constant struggle for power played out in dreary rooms with surreptitious whispers and lamps burning out like flames in a de-oxygenated chamber. A perennial game of musical chairs around team selection with frequent chopping and changing on the back of pure favouritism or a varying philosophy thanks to the rotation of coaches.

Whether it was the Indian Hockey Federation or the present day Hockey India, the narrative has largely remained the same. From the time of Ashwini Kumar when two captains led the team into the Olympics to the stint of KPS Gill when Dhanraj Pillay was passed over and captainship was given to Ramandeep Singh; from appointing Ric Charlesworth as consultant but not taking him to the Olympic Qualifiers in Chile, where India did not qualify, to the current Hockey India deciding that ‘young legs’ are necessary even if it means sacrificing wins in crucial tournaments. The only thing that moved with lightning speed at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast was the fall from grace — twice silver medalists relegated to 4th place — losing to teams way below India in the FIH Rankings.

Indian hockey team failed to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games after defeat to England. AFP

Indian hockey team failed to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games after defeat to England. AFP

Many would probably forget what happened in Gold Coast once the team assembles again. Just a few players tweeting about their ‘pain’ and ‘disappointment’ with the coaching staff that 'wanted to get down to basics but ensured it never happened'. But that narrative remains unchanged. Kicking out Roelant Oltmans wasn’t the issue; India have kicked out Ric Charlesworth and Terry Walsh too. But no questions were raised when Oltmans, an Olympic Gold and World Cup Gold winner was replaced by a man with no credentials to coach senior men’s hockey — at least of a national men’s side.

Even if the bona fides are left alone, talent comes disguised in many forms. Since the Asia Cup win, within days of Marijne’s appointment, the story that emerged was certain players were not up to standards. To be fair to Marinje, every coach has a right to understand the team and then tweak it accordingly. Teams were inter-changed constantly with the tournaments not given the due weightage they deserved. Players from the Hockey World League didn’t go to the 4-Nation and then suddenly an entire Sultan Azlan Shah Team arrived in Malaysia with no key players and no penalty corners converters. Amit Rohidas and Varun Kumar were present. India had 30 PCs in the Azlan Shah and converted 8; a close look would explain why we are not entering the semi-finals and finals of tournaments. Worse, every tournament became an experiment. The future was the New Kingdom.

Teams like Australia, England and Argentina sent their best teams to the Azlan Shah. India didn't. Reason — focus on the Commonwealth Games and clinch the gold; as if it was the mango tree in your back yard and you could pluck fruit even after an afternoon siesta. A look at the top three finishers at the CWG – Australia, New Zealand and England. The Gold and Bronze winner played the Azlan Shah and tried their best under pressure. India sat back in the camp and drew triangles on paper, did the drills, went to the gym and naturally like all teams dreamt of the Gold.

What is worrying is that India’s poor performance at the Azlan Shah was treated like par for the course. “The boys are learning,” was the refrain. Colin Batch, the Australian coach was asked why he brought his best boys to Malaysia. Answer: “It’s a prestigious tournament and what better way to prepare for the CWG than play and win here.” Australia beat England in the final and then, as the script usually rolls out won the Commonwealth Games too. England ended up with the bronze. India took their paper triangles and ended up 4th, slid down two places. But that shouldn’t be too worrying because we are preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. By that logic, Indi should only win the Asian Games and lose everything in between; price of embracing the future.

The narrative is okay, philosophy arguable; logic can be sensed between the words. But why do the goal posts change on the arrival of every new coach? Since 1980, India haven’t won a single Olympic Gold; leave alone a measly bronze that at the moment has the glitter of Gold for for the nation. But every coach who arrives, Indian or foreigner, comes armed with a story that says ‘preparing for the next 4 years.’ And then the next arrives. The last World Cup victory was in 1975. India haven’t even smelt a semi-final since then. But the experimentation, vacillation and worse flip-flop continues. In other words, the stable of Indian hockey has become the biggest lab for coaches to come and try and their futuristic experiments here. They all fail. Go back. India hockey keeps sliding back.

Before the Commonwealth Games, Sjoerd Marijne wrote a column for a sports website and for a financial daily explaining the reasons why he was adopting a ‘young legs’ approach. Was there a need to go public? Marijne wrote: “Having tried different combinations in three major tournaments and one tour over these past few months, I believe the 18 we have picked is the best we have to win the gold at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.”

And then later in the column was this line: “We are closer to top countries now and on a good day can upset any team, regardless of their ranking.”

Common sense and consequences now show that the 18 he picked were not good enough for the Commonwealth Games. And which big teams did India upset in the CWG? On the contrary, they lost to lower-racked England and New Zealand. Will India now see a write-up on why a team that was mentally and physically preparing for the CWG gold ended up 4th?

Former Indian captain and coach V Bhaskaran, who captained the team to Gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics and later coached winning Indian teams at the Azlan Shah and who was coach of the 1st Indian junior team at the World Cup in 1997, said, “There is nobody asking questions of this bunch who is in charge. Can someone out there explain Rupinder Pal Singh’s hamstring injury? Yes, it can happen in a match. But in the matches before, he wasn’t stretching his left leg fully during PCs. Was he fully fit when he landed at Gold Coast?”

For a team to completely crumble, even in the match against Pakistan, whom earlier they have beaten by bigger margins, was a sorry state of affairs. Pakistan used a lone forward and got their goal; no defence marking was needed. Even when Rupinder pulled up while chasing a ball in his own defence, the commentator said, “This is the danger when you play a full back for long stretches in the match.” Was the inefficiency of the defence line the reason why Rupinder played for long?

To leave Surinder Kumar and take youngsters like Varun was folly. Surinder is a steady full back without being a PC converter. Now everybody doesn’t need to be a PC converter. In the last match against England, after pool matches and the semi-finals, India used an indirect and converted through Varun; in 39 PC’s at the CWG, one indirect. But Surinder soaks pressure. He may not be flamboyant. But he is effective. Have we forgotten how Varun fumbled on an aerial in the Asia Cup final against Malaysia and gave a PC in the last minutes when India were leading 2-1?

Bhaskaran points to an invisible midfield. “Midfield, where was the midfield? I only saw Manpreet running around. At times, it seemed he would fall down. What did Chinglensana do and where were the rest?”

The Indian midfield had Vivek Prasad, Chinglensana, Manpreet Singh and Sumit. The reason for keeping Sumit was pace and in patches he did perform. But the gaps and spaces created by Vivek and Chinglensana were filled by swarming English and Kiwi forwards. In one instance in the bronze-medal match, Vivek was surrounded by two English players, the ball taken away and the 17-year-old, no doubt precociously talented, couldn’t fall back and defend again. The coaching staff, both Marijne and John, went to great lengths to explain that Sardar cannot fall back. Well, the reason Vivek was picked that he could fall back.

Vivek hasn’t even played a full season in domestic hockey or even in the Indian Junior side. But after being fast tracked him into the senior side, the Kiwis ran rings around him in defensive zones. Over the years, different coaches have fast tracked younger players into the national sides who were unable to take the pressure. India already had the core when Marijne took over; probably one reason why India won the Asia Cup. And then youngsters Vivek and Dilpreet who have played the Johor Cup, an under-21 tournament, replaced Ramandeep Singh, a much improved forward with tons of experience. Talent also needs nurturing, every swimmer is not thrown towards the deep end of the pool; some swim and some drown.

“What they did to Sardar, kept playing him without support, is what they will do to Manpreet,” says Bhaskaran. “By the time he reaches the World Cup, he will be like a shadow of himself.” On Sardar, Bhaskaran, said, “I think the rationale is midfield needs legs and not experience. Barry Middleton (England) can play at 34 after 400 international matches. But Sardar is old. He is still wily. His passes are what made Akashdeep and the forwards the players they are. As a midfielder he will make mistakes while passing but if a safety-first approach is going to be adopted, then it's better to play chess and  draw. Modern hockey is about rolling substitution. One needs experienced minds who understand what it is to be a goal or two goals down.”

The defeat to New Zealand in the semi-finals is going to hurt for a long time. In the 4-Nation tournament in New Zealand, at the start of 2018, India played a double leg and beat the Kiwis twice. But when it came to a proper tournament, the Kiwis were better prepared.

Since the time that Pardeep Mor was not deemed good enough, the wing back position has been a problem position for in Indian hockey. Pardeep gave the thrust and at times, one could see Sumit doing that. But there is a big difference between the powerful hits of Mor and Sumit.

Calmness needs to return to the Indian midfield. At the moment, it’s Manpreet who can shield the ball, spring up in attack and fall back for a major portion of the match. But there is no secondary player in the midfield to create accurate long passes. Long passes also go past the full press of teams and help in stopping counter attacks. At Gold Coast, there was no cover in the middle zone; it was the freeway for teams to enter and create noise in the Indian striking circle.

As per the stats, India's PC conversion since the time Marijne took over at the Asia Cup has been an abysmal 27 percent. But in terms of PCs defended, the figure is a respectable 76 percent. So the silver lining is there. But questions need to be asked of Chris Ciriello, the Australian PC expert, now an analyst with the Indian team, star of the 2014 World Cup with a hat-trick.

England and New Zealand controlled the area just outside their striking circle. In so many ways, that is the key path, the main artery to the heart of the defence, the goal. India didn’t do that and the one match they did, they beat England 4-3, a match in which India came together in the 4th Quarter. Control that area and you have a hold on possession, counters and it forces opposition to rethink how to enter your citadel. When everyone points to circle penetrations it would help to see how those penetrations were handled by the opposition. Also to evaluate why teams with less circle penetrations managed to beat us.

For that a team doesn't need ‘young legs’ or ‘experienced limbs’, you just need to understand that in a world where hockey has become chess on a larger board, maybe, someone out there did out-manoeuvre India. Jo Nesbo in his new book offers a ‘hopeful’ Macbeth. Maybe, Sjoerd Marijne is still capable of offering Indian hockey ‘hope’ sustained on quality, experience and vigour of young hearts.

Sundeep Msira table


Updated Date: Apr 18, 2018 09:45 AM

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