While it’s tempting to get carried away with the twin wins over Netherlands in India’s debut in the 2020 Pro League, the home team also has a knack of self-destructing after some super starts to various campaigns over the years. It would, however, be a huge step if India decides to reinvent itself and scalp the World Champions and World No 1 Belgium, also the team that is playing the best hockey in the world. Let there be no doubt that India played at a level at The Kalinga against Netherlands rarely seen in recent years, except probably at the 2018 Champions Trophy. Indian coach Graham Reid will not be satisfied easily and for a man who has learnt the trade under the brilliant Ric Charlesworth, raising India’s level and improvising continuously will be the agenda. After the shoot-out win in the second match against Netherlands, Reid said, “There is room for a lot of improvement.”
Over the next 5-6 months, as the Pro League rolls on, Reid will have a good look at the players, check them out for injuries, and finally it will be the form and the ability to withstand pressure that would make the players make the final cut for the team that would fly to Tokyo. However, the World No 1 Belgium are the opponent that India needs to immediately tackle and beat at home. It’s easy to discount wins at home. But beating the 2018 World Cup finalist and then have the same result against the World Champions will create a ripple effect in World Hockey. Pressure for once will be balanced out between India and its opponents; at least for the top four.
The last three encounters, all Test matches against Belgium have been won by India: 2-0, 2-1 and 5-1. In the 2018 World Cup, the score was 2-2 and at the Champions Trophy in Breda, it was 1-1 – close, intense encounters that showcase both skill and tenacity. Former Indian captain and coach V Bhaskaran who watched the matches against Netherlands in the Pro League felt India played well “but needed to play at almost 80 percent of their skill level if they had to go deep into the Pro League or the Olympic Games.” He felt and said, “Honestly, in the 2018 World Cup, they didn’t do too much wrong against Netherlands except for not picking up the opportunities and on the day should have won that quarter-final. But looking at that match and seeing them in the Pro League, they are definitely playing well.”
Bhaskaran does feel that areas like the midfield might come under pressure from quality teams like Belgium who are not only good with the ball but also know how to pace a match. “I think we faltered in the midfield in the second game against Netherlands,” says Bhaskaran. “I do feel that Manpreet strays quite often onto the left and that at times leaves gaps which a top team can easily exploit on the day.” In fact, Bhaskaran also feels that the coaching staff should rest Manpreet against some strong opponents so that the midfield can get an opportunity to play and create without India’s talismanic captain player. “It will help them in Tokyo,” feels Bhaskaran.
Indian teams over the years have been burdened and accused of orthodoxy. The match that immediately comes to mind is the India vs Belgium quarter-final at the 2016 Rio Olympics, a game that slowly over the last two quarters veered around into India playing into Belgium’s hands and then refused to either innovate or break away with some unorthodox play either in the midfield or even with the tested high balls to break the tremendous pressure in the 3rd and 4th quarter. The change that was seen against Netherlands last month was even with the fast runs on the flanks, forwards were not isolating themselves. They were being covered or supported by overlapping players with fast hits into the circle, not the usually predictable parallel hits but the ones that zipped into the middle of the circle, catching the defence unaware and mostly on the wrong foot.
Both defences, India and Belgium are world class. Belgium does have the edge boosted by the confidence of being World number one. Indian captain Manpreet understands that and also knows it’s the men at the back who will defend and also create the breakaway moves. “It is upon us on how we play,” says the Indian captain. “Everyone knows that Belgium is a good team. So, we will try to give them less chances as their attacking is quite good and whenever we go inside their D, we try and get the chance for a PC or get a field goal. The lesser the chances we give to them, the better it would be for us.”
Against Netherlands in the 2nd match, when Manpreet got a yellow card, India was down to ten men for ten minutes. The defence of Harmanpreet Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh, Surender Kumar, Birendra Lakra, Amit Rohidas was under huge pressure, but they held out. Dutch coach Max Caldas also said later, “we should have scored the goals then”, but it is the same verve that India need to display against Belgium.”
Manpreet believes it’s a mix of attack and defence that will make India dominant. “We have been working a lot since the last time on areas like attacking as the coach believes that we will get a chance in the first 10 minutes which we have been getting and if we convert that into a goal then it will be a positive point as a motivation to do better. And if we keep our defence strong and give them the least chances, like the last two matches against Netherlands that we had, our defence gave a very good performance because of which we got good goals.”
Graham Reid speaks of consistency, the only factor that divides India from the top four. Over the last three decades, it has been the consistency that has been the biggest issue. Reid says, “I certainly know with our team it is that every time we play we want to win,” he said. “I think you will get that. It doesn’t really matter who is playing and who is playing who and who is actually in the team. And you have to have that because we can’t turn it on and off. That’s the problem. People would like to think you can switch form and switch it off and not play well today or play well tomorrow. You have to be able to play consistently to do that especially when the teams at the moment are so close. For me the teams that are going for the Olympic Games, they are all very-very good teams.”
The one factor that Reid spoke about is belief. That particular aspect has been fragile. Time and again, India has slipped from winning positions simply because they haven’t powered away in the last lap. But held off thinking, fearing any change in pattern or simply attacking for more goals will let the advantage slip.
Reid uses the example of how belief is built with performance. “I think the case with Belgium is that before the World Cup, they perhaps lacked the belief that they were No 1 in the World. Now, you see in the way they play that they believe they are No 1. They deserved to be No 1. Perhaps that is a shift in the mind that you see in the team. But, for us what is really important is that we perform at our best and any team on the day can win or lose and we will be going out to win.”
Apart from the faith in succeeding at everything that hockey has to offer, lifting the World Cup has changed the face of hockey in Belgium. It has given a boost to the domestic league. India, on the contrary, instead of focusing on the Hockey India League, has let the advantage slip away. So, when Belgian captain Thomas Briels makes the point of the increase in players in his country, it strikes a note which will be noticed in India but like a lot of things, swept under the carpet.
In Bhubaneswar, Briels, said, “Yes, it has changed a lot. But, not only after the World Cup but after the Olympic medal in Rio 2016. You see in 8 years’ time you see a rise in 25000 players to 53000 players. It’s incredible. A lot of new clubs also in Belgium. Even now people have to wait to play hockey and we don’t have enough field in Belgium. So, the infrastructure is getting a bit behind. You see a lot of people getting interested in playing hockey.”
Briels also makes this distinction between the Pro League and the Olympic Games which every fan understands that winning the Tokyo medal is priority. “We are No 1 in the World, ranked No 1 and every game counts. We also want to win games. It’s not the most important thing to win the Pro-League, we rather win the Olympic Games. But, it is a nice tournament to win. It’s a young tournament. We lost the final last year. So, we are pretty keen to win it this year.”
Against Belgium, India has to push limits of every aspect of play to understand their own reach and the team’s breaking point. A win against Belgium in both matches will liberate India to perform at a level that just could be the beginning of the pinnacle they want to achieve. What they create now and in the months to come could have a far-reaching impact on the future of the sport and the youngsters wanting to play it.
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Updated Date: Feb 08, 2020 09:02:18 IST