We stand at the same point – as we did in 2003, 2007; ready to pole vault to a higher plane. We have stood previously at the top of the pile knowing there are crucial steps still ahead. Take away that era which is more baggage than inspiration and we know that the ‘learjet’ called ‘Indian Hockey’ could have taken off perfectly. But as, we, critics and cynics, point out, the take off point wasn’t always well judged and the ‘hype’ sometimes reached such a crescendo that ‘reality’ got fogged out.
A win and generally you see a mist blowing itself in. Apart from winning the Asia Cup, India got the 98’ Asian Games gold, 2001 Junior World Cup crown, the 2011 Asian Champions trophy, the 2014 Asian Games gold, the 2016 Champions Trophy silver, the 2015 Hockey World League (HWL) bronze, the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy followed by the 2016 Junior World Cup trophy. But the cycle continues. Victories followed by domination in Asia but results at the world level not forthcoming. There were different factors at play always – coaches sacked even after winning, teams hurriedly dismantled, key players retired or discarded as ‘old war horses’ even as 37-year-old Aussie Jamie Dwyer played at Rio like a gladiator, or just inertia and resistance to a higher aim.
Take the last two times we won the Asia Cup – in 2003 under Rajinder Singh Senior and Joaquim Carvalho in 2007. Rajinder was promptly removed by the time the Olympics came around and we finished seventh. Under Carvalho, we beat South Korea in Chennai to win the Asia Cup for the second time and we didn’t even qualify for the Olympics; history being created as India for the first time didn’t play Olympic hockey. Winning the Asia Cup didn’t help. We were just so consumed by it that looking forward and planning for bigger events or even tricky qualifying tournaments like the Olympic qualifying wasn’t prioritised. Otherwise, why wouldn’t the Indian coach and team management not go to Kuala Lumpur to watch England play the Champions Trophy knowing that India would face them in the Qualifying final at Santiago, Chile. We did and lost 0-2. In the Pool match, India also lost to England 2-3.
When we won the Asian Games gold in 98’ in Bangkok, the coach MK Kaushik was sacked. In 2014, when we won the Asian Games gold in Incheon, then Coach Terry Walsh was sacked. History is an indicator of how Indian hockey instead of flying ahead and higher in a cloud of jet fumes has usually stalled and even reversed the process.
But things look different this time around. A major factor is Dutch coach Sjoerd Marijne, appointed seven matches back; just before the Asia Cup and he has certainly delivered. But then, so did Michael Nobbs, appointed before the 2011 Asian Champions Trophy,. He won the tournament. Even though Marijne is too polite to protest but the comparisons would definitely be uncomfortable. Nobbs did win the Asian Champions Trophy, but then a year later, coached the team to a 12th place at the Olympics, India’s lowest ranking ever at any Olympic Games. The Dutchman’s positive touch was there for everybody to see. Pressure is immense whether it’s the Asia Cup or the HWL. The response gives you a peek into the man’s character. Coaches hate comparisons and report-card valuations. After the team won, he was asked if he would get carried away by early success at the Asia Cup. “I know it’s the Asia Cup and its importance on the continent. But there is a road we now need to travel on to get better results. That’s where results matter.”
Looking beyond the coach and the support staff, the team needs to perform. With the turbulence that followed Roelant Oltmans removal, there were a few indicators that India might not perform in Dhaka. In winning the Asia Cup, the team has signalled the ambition for bigger gains. The Indian team now is a lovely blend of youth and experience that can play till the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The idea is to look for big wins; motivate and transform the Champions in Asia to the podium at the 2018 World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The Hockey World League Finals is too soon to expect a result. But if it comes, it will be a reaffirmation that the core is intact.
Playing without P Sreejesh has massive disadvantages and distinct advantages too. Out of oblivion comes the duo of Suraj Karkera and Akash Chikte now confirmed as the second in line after Sreejesh. In fact, at Dhaka, if you didn’t check the jersey numbers of the goalkeepers, you wouldn’t know who was standing in the Indian goalpost. Both performed at optimum levels. The only thing missing was a boisterous Sreejesh holding the defence lines, pushing the defenders to play up, calling them back, basically the generator unit that won't let the team power out. Four goals in the whole tournament is a good sign when you have two second-in-line goalkeeper juniors operating.
It’s the defence that makes you feel extremely positive about this team. Harmanpreet Singh, Surender Kumar, Varun Kumar, Dipsan Tirkey and even Sumit, who fell back quite a bit, are solid when it comes to stick work and initiating attacks.
Harmanpreet in the striking circle is as smooth as silk, twisting and turning his stick, the ball a blur. On the flank while defending, if he has the ball, you know an attack can be created out of that position simply because the opposition cannot get the ball. Against an attack, Surender Kumar goes low and suddenly when a three forward unit attacks, he is the safest bet who will suddenly emerge from within that wall, ball on his stick. His trapping rarely fails and the only blots are the dips in focus when he stands behind his own defenders.
Dipsan is a revelation during pressure situations. He is light on his feet and can skip around when attackers have the ball avoiding penalty corners. The Sundergarh boy's asset is his flair, percentage play and the understanding that if passages and channels are blocked, he needs to rotate with Sardar and Harmanpreet. Varun has the strength of an Ox but is fragile in his mind. In the last minutes against Malaysia, he did let focus drop, got rattled and gave a penalty corner away. But throw him into the attack with the midfield and his force is like a magnetic field pushing the opponents back. As a substitute penalty corner flicker, there is more to be done.
For all those who were busy writing off Sardar Singh since the team took him to Rio as an inside forward (probably the worst decision at the Rio Olympics) his play could take him till Tokyo. Undoubtedly, the opponents were not as fast as Germany, Holland, Spain or Belgium but Sardar showed solidity on the field. He knows where to turn the ball, when to pass, to spot an empty channel and he understands the tempo of the game. He has the skills to hold the ball till eternity. His experience keeps nerves calm and the forwards have this strange telepathy with him knowing that when he clears the ball it will be to one of their sticks.
In an era of rolling substitutions, Sardar is an asset and not an ‘old war horse.’ Having said that, those legs after playing top level hockey for more than a decade will be tested at Bhubaneshwar in the Hockey World League Finals. “He brings solidity at the back and his experience is what is required against top teams,” said Pakistan captain Muhammad Irfan, when asked about key players in the Indian team.
It’s the midfield where India needs a little more support for Manpreet Singh, even though Chinglensana had a terrific tournament, especially that opening goal against Pakistan in the Pool game. The captain is caught in two minds – attack or defend. And whenever he moved up with the ball in his trademark, stick extended full length style, opponents have scrambled for cover. But as Marijne understands this team and their strengths, Manpreet’s role will evolve. India needs a central midfielder like what that they had with Sardar in the 2014 World Cup and as the defence settles down in their roles, Manpreet has the capability to become what Marc Delissen was with the Olympic winning 96’ and World Cup winning 98’ Dutch team.
At the Asia Cup, Sumit impressed. The Sonipat boy had played the 2017 Azlan Shah and in the match with Australia had moved with the finesse and skills of a veteran. He is a stallion and can turn at will when running at high speed with the ball, completely throwing the opponents off balance. Outside the opposition striking circle, his vision creates movements and players like Ramandeep Singh, SV Sunil, Akashdeep Singh and Lalit Upadhyay rely on him to switch passes which defenders feel may be going the other way. For someone who played the 2016 Junior World Cup, he should be hitting his peak between 2020 and 2024.
“There is more work to be done,” said Marijne, when he was speaking about the forwards before India’s Pool match against Pakistan. “They can be brilliant at times and I know we can achieve something big.” In some quarters against Pakistan, Korea and Malaysia, India played at a speed that made their opponents dizzy. But to keep playing at that level needs consistency and at the moment there are times when technically issues come in of trapping and switching play inside the striking circle. When they get it together, it’s like watching ghosts slip in and out of the defence.
Akashdeep plays like he is on thin ice, small steps, ball sticking to the stick like its life depended on it, creates havoc when he is on a roll. At times, his first pass gets delayed, upsetting the rhythm of the team. Ramandeep and Gurjant Singhare poachers and do their job well. Sunil had the energy but ran out of luck when handling the ball inside the opposition striking circle. He has the speed of an Olympic one-lap runner but control deserts him at crucial junctures of a match. However, his experience is vital and the Indian coach would understand that with ‘ball speeds high’ Sunil is the key play maker.
Lalit created a mysterious world in Dhaka, his stick work a joyous experience. But the Varanasi boy’s strength was to hold his position and create space for others. Excitement at times got the better of him and goals which should have been routine were either shot over or the pass had limited vision on it.
Modern hockey is all about geometry, time and space. The creation, the split second first touch pass and the skills to open space for others. Sjoerd Marijne, on a much needed break now in Holland knows he has plenty of work to do and things to achieve. Indian hockey for long has been devoted to tradition – the constant tussle in making the sport a spectacle or a diligent, back-room, robotic formula that makes for tedious but winning finishes. Between the structural formula of Brasa, the attacking flair of Terry Walsh, the solidity of both flair and grinding it out of Oltmans, Marijne doesn’t offer a mix. He comes with an energy that is both exhilarating and gives the team the space to play within the confines of what wins a match. Change at times is difficult, arduous and demanding. But it’s challenging too. In Dhaka, those sparks under Sjoerd Marijne were clearly visible.
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Updated Date: Oct 24, 2017 18:16:58 IST