The past exerts its own pressure. Scoffers might sneer and say, ‘Who cares?’ They do have a point. Too many years have passed since India won a big title – Olympic Games or the World Cup. They are not even serious contenders for the Pro League on their debut (they didn’t play the inaugural Pro League last year). Wins in Asian Games, Asia Cup or even the Asian Champions Trophy are highs but fleeting, a balm before the perpetual elephant in the room – ‘but what about the Olympic medal?’
At the Kalinga Stadium, from 18 January, the search once again begins for that moment Indian hockey, many decades back, had got used to; picking up the Olympic gold or a podium finish at least. Combinations, player form, coaching staff evaluation all being brought together into a single form of energy, aspiration and desire that would propel the team towards the 2020 Tokyo Olympics podium.
Even though all eyes are on the Olympic Games, the immediate task at hand is to start winning against big opponents, the ones who are above you – Argentina (4), Netherlands (3), Belgium (2) and Australia (1). The ones directly below are teams, dangerous and cannot be classified as floaters – Germany (6), England (7), Spain (8) and New Zealand (9); all fighting for a place in the top four of the Pro League, more importantly, understanding the rest when it comes to the Olympic Games. In the last three decades, India has never stuck to a fifth place ranking for more than a year. In the 1994 World Cup, we did end up fifth. But then plummeted at the bigger tournaments and slipped in and out of the top ten.
In Bhubaneswar, Billy Bakker’s Dutchmen stand, yet again, in front of the Indian team. They broke Indian hearts 13 months back in the World Cup quarter-final with a close 2-1 win. Interestingly, the assistant coach of that Dutch side, Australian Graham Reid is now the chief in the Indian dugout. Max Caldas, the then Dutch coach carries on hoping to start the second season of the Pro League with a win against India, and in that win, find a momentum that carries them to the league final and provide the key to a Tokyo podium finish.
There is no denying the race is for Tokyo. But that is, if one can call it, a problem in the Olympic year. Against the Olympics, other tournaments, like the Pro League, get overshadowed. India make their debut in the elite nine and finally get some competition against top teams. Every coach asked for more matches but finances or politics never made it happen.
In a way, excuses will now have to remain in the shadows after India plays the Pro League. This is where the men walk and do the talking. And it would be interesting to understand and figure out the men in the Indian team. Skill wise they are second to none. But it’s the performance in pressure situations, key moments that separate the rest of the teams from the top four or top two.
There are times when the Indian team resembles the French tennis player Gael Monfils – miraculous shots, amazing court craft but no big win. Ric Charlesworth, the Aussie coach would probably lunge in here and give a lecture on consistency. Yet, that is exactly what would be worrying Reid – following decades of inconsistency.
In an interview after the team announcement, Reid said: “We have chosen a relatively experienced side to take on Holland. Varun Kumar will be back in training but won’t be able to play against the Dutch after his injury in the Olympic Qualifying matches.” Reid was also happy about Chinglensana Singh returning after almost a year out and Sumit after a six month lay-off. He attributed Gurjant returning to the side because of his hard work and form in the training camps. “It will be important to start strong against the top three sides in the world. It also gives us an opportunity on getting our structures right in the preparation for the Olympic Games,” said the Indian coach.
With a lot of games in the Pro League, one can’t read too much into the selection process right away. The Dutch captain has said 90 percent of the players selected will find their way into the Olympic squad. Can the same be said for India? It will be too early to roll the dice. But one would have liked to have Simranjeeet Singh against the Dutch. In 2018, he had impressed in the World Cup quarter-final by opening up space for others. Hardik Singh, a surprise call at the 2018 World Cup, would be disappointed to not make the Indian side for the Pro League opener. But with 16 matches to go, tweaking the side to play against various opponents is Reid’s call.
Eyes would be on Rupinder Pal Singh and Harmanpreet Singh on penalty corner conversions, even though India has Amit Rohidas as the third flicker. It’s also the midfield that would be judged, consistency being the priority parameter. There is enough competition in the forward line with hopes circling on Mandeep and Gurjant Singh; a step behind in creating from the top of the circle would be Akashdeep Singh and Lalit Upadhyay. One still remembers the clean, reverse hit strike by Akashdeep in the World Cup quarter final. And, then, how the Dutch captain Billy Bakker, falling back, killing the pace, held the Dutch side to eke out a 2-1 in. Though, one also remembers, as clear as daylight, Nilakanta Sharma’s flick, inches from the left flank, hitting the post and going out; Harmanpreet Singh’s blazing reverse hit from the top of the circle, stopped brilliantly by Dutch goalkeeper Pirmin Blaak.
A Pro League opener will not be conservative in terms of play, openings and goals but to expect a repeat of the World Cup quarter-final where a different kind of pressure does inhibit players may not be seen at The Kalinga. In the last five matches against each other, both sides have won two each with a match drawn. India have won 2-1 and 4-3 while Holland won 2-1 (WC QF, 2018) and 3-1. In the 2018 Champions Trophy, both sides had played a 1-1 draw.
It’s the start of the season which will wind up with the Olympic Games in Tokyo with teams all trying to peak in the Japanese capital. It’s also a pointer that India’s preparations start at The Kalinga, a stadium where a loyal army of fans come out to cheer and in some way or the other kept a sport alive, which according to many, was losing lustre for a long time. Whether, the Indian team chase down a big title in 2020 or not, yet another year of hope has, surely, arrived.
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Updated Date: Jan 17, 2020 17:01:03 IST