Bhubaneshwar: For long the livewire in the Indian midfield, former hockey skipper Sardar Singh has two simple pearls of wisdom for his ex-teammates as they look to win the elusive World Cup: Dominate the midfield, and stick to basics.
In an exclusive interaction with Firstpost, the former stalwart also warned against loose passing and indulging in individual play that allows the opposition to wrest control and score late.
“Central midfield is a very important area. Most teams put pressure in the midfield these days, so we have to watch out. Obviously, there will be mistakes, but we have to make sure those mistakes occur in the opposition’s half and not in our side of the turf. If we fumble in our half, European teams will take advantage and target our D,” Sardar said.
The former playmaker's warnings are not without reason. In the Asian Games semi-final against a lower-ranked Malaysia, India came up with their worst performance in over a year as the midfield and defence were laid open by a mix of complacency and an inexplicable loss of collective form. Sardar believes that despite a poor show, India could have won the match, but their age-old habit of allowing late goals scuppered their chances.
“I think the game against Malaysia was a collective failure. Despite playing such a poor game, we should have won the game in full-time as we were leading 2-1, but we conceded a goal in the final stages and eventually lost. We can’t afford those mistakes in World Cup,” Sardar, who was pushed into retirement on the basis of that game, said.
“Even in the Asian Champions Trophy game against Japan, we committed errors that a stronger team would have taken full advantage of. We need to know the art of killing time if we have the lead and to control counter-attacks,” he added.
In Sardar’s absence, Manpreet Singh will lead the charge in midfield, and the 32-year-old extended his support to his former protégé.
“Manpreet will be one of our most important players, along with PR Sreejesh. He keeps the team together as captain, and I particularly like his passing and the way he turns with the ball. He has the capability to split defences too, as he showed with his wonderful goal against Pakistan at the Asian Champions Trophy recently.”
This will be the 14th edition of the hockey World Cup and no Asian team has won the trophy since Pakistan, led by Shahbaz Ahmed, courted glory in Sydney in 1994. Sardar attributed the 24-year-gap to the superior levels of grassroots hockey in Europe.
“There’s a lot of difference between Asian and European hockey. Their biggest advantage is a robust domestic structure. The quality of hockey they play at club level or domestic level is almost as good as the international level. The standard of domestic hockey in our country is nowhere close to the Europeans. The gulf between our domestic hockey and international hockey is massive. While in domestic matches, we can play at a relaxed pace and practically pass wherever we want to, at the international level, you don’t get time to lift your head. The moment you get a pass, 3-4 defenders are on you. They have a very high-pressing game, and they really exert a lot of pressure on the midfield.
“Also, European nations play a lot of matches in various countries, as travelling in Europe doesn’t take much time,” he said.
At the 2018 World Cup, India are pooled with Rio Olympics silver medallists Belgium, 11th-ranked Canada, and the highest–ranked team in their continent, South Africa. The format allows a straight last-eight qualification for pool toppers while the second and third-placed teams play crossover matches. Teams finishing last in each pool get eliminated.
India’s best finish at the event since winning the trophy in 1975 is the fifth-place result at the 1994 edition. The next best show is the eighth-place finish at the 2010 edition in New Delhi, and Sardar is hopeful that the team will reach the knockout stage.
“I see the team making it to the knockouts, but our main test will start from quarter-finals. Our quarter-final match can change our entire hockey history. I think at least 14 or 15 players from the squad of 18 have to be in their top form; on a scale of 1 to 10, these 14-15 guys have to perform at the level of 7 or 8.
“Momentum holds the key in important tournaments, so our initial matches are very important. The confidence and rhythm that the team develops initially go a long way in determining the eventual result. So we have to be on top of our form and energies.”
‘Playing at home an advantage’
Bhubaneshwar is known to have among the most passionate — and knowledgeable — hockey crowds in the country, and India do have a decent record in the eastern city. India finished fourth in the 2014 Champions Trophy after losing the high-octane semi-final to Pakistan here, and secured the third position in the Hockey World League Final last year.
The refurbished Kalinga Stadium is custom-made to let the crowd’s energy flow into the playing area, and Sardar feels that home support will ensure India are never short of morale.
“Our biggest strength will be playing at home. I think this city has one of the best atmospheres to play hockey in, and I can say it after playing all over the world. The stadium is built in a way that the audience is very close to the turf, so you can feel the energy reaching you. It may also put you under extreme pressure, but if you ask me, I will derive a lot of strength from it.
“A lot of players get carried away seeing such a passionate crowd and tend to show off personal skills. The focus should be more on passing the ball and playing simple, basic hockey. We should look to pass the ball on the stick, use aerial passes and long balls when required; like I said, just stick to the basics. If our passes are slow or bumpy, we will only make things difficult for ourselves,” the former captain opined.
Hosts India open their campaign on 28 November with an evening match against South Africa.
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Updated Date: Nov 12, 2018 10:50:04 IST