Hockey World Cup 2018: India's forward line fails as mature captain Billy Bakker leads Netherlands to semi-finals
It would be prudent for India to ensure continuity and build a structure from the core at hand to ensure a strong challenge in the Olympic qualifiers.
Indian hockey's seventh coach in a decade, Harendra Singh, believed he had a strategy, a plan in place for reversing Indian fortunes on the world stage. But after the 1-2 defeat to the runners-up of the 2014 World Cup Netherlands, it seemed umpiring and not the breaking of structure, a lack-lustre midfield, insipid goalkeeping and a lack of maturity to tackle pressure in a knock-out World Cup match was the real reason. Disappointment is written in the pages of Indian hockey history. Flip the chapters and hurt is the underlying theme. Bravado was the mantra before the crucial Netherlands quarter-final. Victory was supposed to be on the anvil. Semi-final the expected outcome.
However, someone somewhere forgot that two teams make up a competition. If one believed that victory was a foregone conclusion in front of 15,000 fans, the sport has over the years proved that a visiting team has the potential to silence that very assemblage. At 1-1, the Kalinga was silent as a tomb. The teams might have been playing inside an empty stadium but that is not the story.
"I would like to tender my apologies. We haven't given what we had to. I am not going to stop today. If they (umpires) don't want to improve, this type of result we will face," said Harendra, flaming away.
"Two umpires. Can anyone define Amit Rohidas' 10-min yellow card? What about this gentleman (points at Manpreet), when he was pushed from behind? Why not yellow card there? We have lost two major tournaments (Asian Games the other) this year (because of umpiring)."
Max Caldas, the Dutch coach, awaiting his turn for the press conference heard what Harendra said. When his turn came, he was candid. "The team with most chances wins the game. We won the game. That's the bottom line. In the end, the umpires didn't play the game."
"'You might have', 'You should have', 'You could have' do not exist. We review games, not umpires. It happened at the Champions Trophy when a call went against us and we had a draw against India. Umpires do their job. It's a very fast-paced game."
Quarter-finals are high-pressure matches and India picked up the pace like a 200m sprinter on the bend. There was flash, skill and vision in the first quarter. Lalit Upadhyay, twisting and turning like a skier on a slope, played some lovely tandem moves with Simranjeet who was probably the only forward to have an above average game. In the opening five minutes, Amit Rohidas fired in a cross deep from defence but Mandeep was not in position. Both India and Netherlands broke early, finding and creating space. It promised to be a thriller.
Earlier in the day, on the sidelines of a TV analysis show, Holland's double Olympic and World Cup gold medallist Stephan Veen had predicted a 2-2 draw that would end in a shoot-out. That it didn't, won't disappoint Veen. Meanwhile, India continued to miss chances in the first quarter as the Dutch rode out the early storm. Mandeep held the ball far too long. Simranjeet with a lovely turn, dipped the ball over the Dutch sticks only to see his shot saved by the goalkeeper. India were penetrative, incisive and showed sharpness that promised more in the three quarters to come. India's first penalty corner came in the 12th minute and Harmanpreet saw his flick rebound off the Dutch goalkeeper Pirmin Blaak. The loose ball reached Akashdeep whose reverse hit zipped high into the net. India led 1-0. The Kalinga rocked.
With seconds to go in the first quarter, a Dutch hit from outside the Indian striking circle streaked in as a defender was caught off guard including the Indian goalkeeper PR Sreejesh. Thierry Brinkman got a touch on it and an umpire's referral confirmed it. At 1-1, The Kalinga was quiet.
The second quarter was quiet. Rotation was the theme for the Dutch. The rise in stature of their captain Billy Bakker was the crucial turning point. With a 2012 London Olympic silver and a 2014 World Cup silver under his belt, Bakker is hunting for a World Cup gold. He took charge filling up zones in the midfield, flowing into every crevice he could find. Bakker was the maturity that India lacked, a player who could double up as a holding player or a freeman. Dilpreet Singh and Mandeep, so good at off-the-ball running, remained rooted behind the defenders. They did fall back to defend. But dragging Dutch defenders all over the place, picking up aerials, making the opposition wary of their presence wasn't happening.
Akashdeep saw a deflection zip past the post, Nilakanta's push wasn't powerful while Hardik realised the difference between playing the Asian Champions Trophy and a World Cup. Jittery as hell, he gave away turn-overs and even when the ball was on top of the striking circle, it took him an eternity to shoot.
With the scores tied at 1-1, one hoped that a turn-around would happen like the one witnessed against Belgium. Or even the fourth quarter, four-goal deluge against Canada.
The third quarter began with the Dutch earning their first PC which was foiled by the Indian defence. Terrific running and some very good defending by Surender Kumar lit up India's play. From a counter-attack, Akashdeep had the ball and space but saw his shot go over the goal post. It was hasty and had Akashdeep utilised the extra space in front, maybe, the outcome of the shot could have been different. A further two Dutch PCs were nullified.
Lalit played a lovely pass to Dilpreet but the youngster shot out. Hardik got a green card, frustration taking over as he lost again in a one-to-one situation to a Dutch player. Nilakanta Sharma decided he would take on the Dutch defence even though Hardik was free on the left.
Tied 1-1 at the start of the fourth quarter, it had the making of a tense struggle. After a Simranjeet cross following a good move wasn't picked up by any Indian forward, the Dutch had their fourth PC. Mink van der Weerden, to the delight of the Dutch team, saw his flick zip under Sreejesh's outstretched left pad. With exactly ten minutes left, India had their task cut out. Billy Bakker was controlling the flow very well. Yet, India had a few sharp chances including a PC where the rebound came back to Harmanpreet whose reverse was again saved. India pulled out Sreejesh. With two minutes left, there was a goalmouth melee but India couldn't get any more PCs.
For good portions of the match, the Dutch chased the game but controlled it. India were fluid at times interspersed with a chaotic game. It's largely the failure of the forward line that hastened India's exit at the quarter-final stage. There was quality but no outward movement. Chances went begging. In a match this close, Brinkman showed the essence of positioning creating an equaliser out of thin air.
"Good positioning is one of the really important things to win games," said Bakker. "India have a lot of young players, a lot of potential but they are also vulnerable getting into good positions. In my opinion, we did it better."
Post-mortems will follow. 'I told you so' statements may cloud a rational understanding of what really went wrong. Retirements may be announced. Over the last two decades, big failures have been followed by ridiculous overhauls. It won't be surprising that post the World Cup, a new crop of players might be inducted. However, that doesn't take away the feeling that in the preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a World Cup was sacrificed to induct and try out youngsters. Yet in this strange world of Indian hockey plagued by myopia at times, it would be prudent to ensure continuity and build a structure from the core at hand to ensure a strong challenge in the Olympic qualifiers.
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