FIH Series Finals 2019: India must be wary of lower-ranked rivals as team begins another climb under coach Graham Reid

Indian hockey performs in cycles. Fearless India took the 2016 and 2018 Champions Trophy finals against vaunted Australia to a shootout. In a bilateral series at Perth in May, Australia earned two emphatic victories, 4- 0 and 5- 2.

Why does India wax and wane?

 FIH Series Finals 2019: India must be wary of lower-ranked rivals as team begins another climb under coach Graham Reid

File image of Indian hockey team. Image Courtesy: Twitter @TheHockeyIndia

India have not played top-level hockey after the World Cup. By opting out of the Hockey Pro League, India got hurt. Australia have been playing the world's top teams in the Pro League. At Perth, Australia had thoughtfully scheduled the India series to fill the gaps in the Pro League schedule. Coming into the India series, Australia had rhythm and momentum. Think of how strategic Australia is in preparation.

According to a television commentator at the India- Australia game at Perth on 17 May, quoting Indian hockey statistician BG Joshi, India have had 53 coaches since 1980. Chronic instability is bound to unsettle players and coaches. Human minds dart around distractions.

Consider this. India won their two Champions Trophy silver medals, and the 2016 junior men's World Cup, when there was stability in management. In 2017, Sardar Singh's summons by the British police over a sexual misconduct case sparked an immediate response. Hockey India was provoked into sparring with a nation that some Indians gleefully see as a declining power, supping with India's old foe, Pakistan.

Consider also this. India's steady improvement over the past years was built upon the strategy of hosting the FIH's elite tournaments, to earn the right to play the world's best teams. The decision not to play the 2019 Pro League might be a genuine error in judgment. It seems a little harsh to blame management alone for the dip in performance.

The truth may be more complex.

For example, despite the frequent change in coaches between 2012 and 2016, India kept improving. Partly, this was because the high-performance director (and coach since 2015) Roelant Oltmans had been in the job since 2013, preventing disruptions. With new coach Graham Reid, India begin another climb.

This sets the context for the Hockey Series Finals, kicking off at Bhubaneswar on 6 June. On paper, the field is not strong, with only India as a top-10 team. But in major tournaments, weaker teams have everything to play for, always on the lookout to deliver the killer punch to more fancied rivals. Established teams tend to remain in the past and present. An analogy from international relations would be: the disarray of Europe, and China's aggressive push to set right what it calls "the century of humiliation." Rusty India could be ambushed.

Coach Graham Reid understands this: "We don't know much about a team like Russia who we play in our first game. We played against Poland at the recent Sultan Azlan Shah Cup; these teams start the tournament averagely but as they get together and play more, they play better and better." Russia or Poland would glory in defeating India, but India defeating them would be matter-of-fact.

Some believe the weather will favour India. Japanese coach Siegfried Aikman, having arrived at Bhubaneswar with his team, has spoken about acclamatising to the hot weather. But recall that India's worst defeat to Australia (0- 8) came in the finals of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, in Delhi's scorching mid-day October heat. India's plans to ambush the Australians spectacularly failed.

On paper, India (ranked 5) appear entitled. But it looks different from the other side. South Africa (16), Japan (18), Poland (21), Russia (22), USA (25), Mexico (39) and Uzbekistan (43) are set to play out of their skins. Without head-to-head records, conjuring an outcome based on rankings is perilous. In the 2019 Azlan Shah Cup finals against India, 17th-ranked Korea sneaked in a 4th quarter goal and won the shootout.

Without the statistics, we can rely on history to understand what might happen at Bhubaneswar. The record sadly is stark: India slip in major tournaments. At the Sydney Olympics, Poland held India to a 1- 1 draw, ending India's chance of reaching the semi-finals. Sundeep Misra writes in Forgive Me Amma, "In their minds they (the Indians) were already in the semi-finals." Ric Charlesworth, the Australian coach, puts his doctor's perspective in World's Best: "Just as in a few moments life can be lost, so too in a few moments the sporting contest can slip from your grasp." This philosopher of hockey devotes a whole chapter to remaining vigilant in sport. India paid dearly for lack of vigilance against Poland.

Tactics and technique are, therefore, only part of the story. As in life, doubt doing sport is treacherous. Cultural factors might explain India's inability to maintain the same level in knockout games as in league play, but we leave that for another day. Rankings do not matter in the Hockey Series Finals. Reid repeats what his foreign-born predecessors have been saying for decades: the process is the first step, results are not delivered at the door, and respect for the opposition is imperative. The Indian team would be better off not thinking too much about outcomes, and just playing with enjoyment and intensity at Bhubaneswar.

Updated Date: Jun 05, 2019 16:17:38 IST