Hockey World Cup 2018, K Arumugam column: India’s sixth place finish at Odisha gives cause for optimism

Two wins and a draw out from four matches, from the view of substance and numbers, was by far the best outcome since Sydney 1994 when the team finished fifth after missing semi-final qualification by a whisker.

Before the Odisha edition, the Indian men were ranked fifth on the FIH charts. In Bhubaneswar, India couldn’t pull off something remarkable to jump up the ladder but they more or less maintained status quo.

India's Akashdeep Singh (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the field hockey quarter-final match between India and the Netherlands at the 2018 Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar. AFP

India's Akashdeep Singh (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the field hockey quarter-final match between India and the Netherlands at the 2018 Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar. AFP

Sad as fans of Manpreet Singh’s team may be, they should draw cheer at how India did not buckle under the pressure of public expectation.

Surely, when you reflect on the last time the country hosted the World Cup in Delhi eight years ago, all the team could do was post a victory – 4-1 over Pakistan in their opener – and go winless in the remaining five matches.

Odisha was clearly different. India topped their pool, thereby avoiding the cross-overs, and sealed a direct spot in the quarter-finals.

They took South Africa apart in the opener 5-0, held eventual champions Belgium to a 2-2 draw before surging into the quarter-finals with a 5-1 win over Canada.

On reflection, it is fathomable that India are one of the best in the world – if not the best.

In hindsight, many would harp on team selection. Especially when it comes to the dropped trio of Sardar Singh, SV Sunil and Rupinderpal Singh.

Their contention does not cut ice. India failed to clinch gold in a weaker field of the Asian Games and returned empty handed from the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games held earlier in the year. Either squad contained at least two of these stars.

Harendra Singh was then compelled to go in for fresh legs and the coach opted for the tougher route. He decided to give form and fitness a priority rather than experience and reputation.

He knew the proportion and repercussion of risk – but it paid off. The team did not let him down and dividends were obtained. We are now in a position to compare Bhubaneswar to Sydney.

The inexperienced quartet of Dilpreet Singh, Nilakanta Singh, Simranjeet Singh and Hardik Singh, however, did not sparkle or surprise the stands. They were thought to be wonder boys but none turned out to be a Thijs van Dam or Tim Brand they were projected to be in the run up to the event.

Wonders, after all, don’t happen just like that. Behind a spectacular success lies the dint of hand work, day in and day out.

Then again, you don’t present the likes of Thijs van Dam or Tim Brand in every country and every tournament. They emerge occasionally and rule the roost till their physiology permits them.

The two teams that India played — Belgium in the pool and The Netherlands in the quarterfinals — went on to play the grand finale. One cannot escape the fact that India did creditably well against both: Draw against epoch making Belgium and losing a keen battle 1-2 to the Netherlands.

The clash against the Dutch could have gone either way. Defeat wasn’t a death blow to Indian hockey but taught good lessons on how to go the extra mile.

The last quarter-final of a global major – the 2016 Rio Olympics – ended in a 1-3 defeat to Belgium. The team was outplayed then and it wasn’t the case in the rousing quarter-final in Bhubaneswar.

Therefore, without resorting to micro-analysis and going into the nitty-gritty of criticism, the present team gives cause for optimism.

India is among the top six nations and if the team stays its course, it probably will enjoy its moment in the sun.

Australia have only one Olympic (men’s) gold medal and three World Cup titles in their kitty. For a country that has been a semi-final fixture (save the Rio Olympics) since the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the return is disappointing.

Germany, another strong hockey nation like Australia, have only two World Cup titles but four Olympic gold medals. In the World Cup, at least, the Germans have underachieved.

India should not expect the present generation of players to carry its historical baggage. Comparisons with Indian teams of the distant past is irrelevant.

In recent times, there are few Indian teams that have played with the same energy as this one. The team should be given consideration and spared from a totally uncalled for castigation.

The future lies in continuity. India has been doing things more or less correctly for a decade now. The Government has extended support in terms of infrastructure and monetary assistance to pay for coaches, support staff as well as exposure tours.

Hockey India has powered the elite group of players forward with frequent participation in top competitions. Even hosting events if it came to it.

The Odisha Government’s  massive effort in sponsoring the 14th World Cup in Bhubaneswar and that of Uttar Pradesh who did likewise for the 2016 Junior World Cup in Lucknow suggests that there is a commitment to promote and render visibility for hockey in a big way on a regional level.

With so many doing their bit, there is every hope that little things will add up to something big in the near future.

Australian legend Richard Charlsworth in his latest work ‘World’s Best’ summed up what makes the best team. “The best teams are replete with athletes who make the right choice at the right time for the right reason.”

A huge concept simplified as only Ric can.

The Indian team needs time to develop such a character. They also need the support and guidance of coaches, support staff and a system space and time to reach their goal.

The team we observed in Bhubaneswar reached half-way. An extended spell of continuity may just about pave way to the destination.

Any move, mild or strong, to disturb the existing equilibrium will put the clock back. It has happened so often in the past and it would be worth avoiding a tendency to do so now.

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Updated Date: Dec 19, 2018 21:31 PM

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