Hockey World Cup 2018: Stage set in Bhubaneswar for global spectacle as India nurse dreams of turnaround
The fresh paint on the murals depicting hockey players in action is drying, and much like the smell that newly-coated surfaces retain, the freshness in Manpreet Singh's team is there to be soaked in. And at the centre of it all, India are nursing a pipe dream.
'Heart beats for Hockey,' claims the giant standee as one disembarks at Biju Patnaik Airport, and unlike most marketing taglines, this has its roots in realism. This is a place that knows its hockey, and if locals are to be believed, it serves as their elixir too. Some reason then, that while traditional hockey centres of north and west are in terminal decline, the east is where the sun rises for hockey in India.
The organisers claim tickets for India matches are sold out. A local cab driver told this writer of his plans to forego a potentially high-income day to take his family to India's inaugural match on Wednesday. The hotel staff sheepishly asks for match passes. And locals couldn't care less for the Bollywood stars expected to add gloss to the opening ceremony; all they want is hockey. Earnest enquiries are made about team compositions and chances, and expert opinions are liberally tossed around.
The purported 100-crore budget that the government earmarked for city's facelift does make its presence felt too. Over 200 city buses have been added to the existing fleet, a half-day has been declared for educational institutions and government offices across the state on Tuesday while the capital has been awarded a well-deserved full day leave for the opening ceremony. Murals depicting hockey players in action, new 30km cycling track, fan parks, overhead branding across the city, and swanky new skywalks have added to the feel, even as last-minute touch-ups continue with ferocious abandon.
The city, like most non-metro cities in the country, goes to bed early, but the air of expectancy hangs heavy long after the dusk gives way to dark. It's in this context of renewal that the Indian team's quest for restructuring must be viewed — for that is precisely what the team is going through, even though traditional problems persist.
The influx of foreign coaches over the past decade has resulted in much-improved fitness levels, so much so that former Indian skipper Sardar Singh believes Indian team is as fit, if not fitter, as the Europeans. After decades of being the epitome of sub-continent's notorious disregard for fitness, it's a welcome break from tradition that India are currently enjoying.
However, issues with penalty corner conversions and last-minute goals continue. "It's got to do with team's psyche. There is a serious issue with late goals, and the team must have the mental strength to hang in till the last minute," says former India captain Pargat Singh. He would know, for as a permanent fixture in the Indian team through the 1990s, he was on the receiving end of many such last-minute debacles.
Dilip Tirkey, another stalwart of Indian hockey, believes it's become a cultural nemesis.
"I can state two reasons: mental strength and fitness. If you're not mentally and physically strong to last 60 minutes, you will continue conceding in dying minutes. This has become a bit of a bugbear; sadly, a cultural thing I would believe," the three-time World Cupper says without mincing words.
Then, there's the issue of penalty-corner conversions. Former Pakistan captain Rehan Butt believes a 40 percent conversion rate translates into 70 percent wins. India would have their stats ready too, but funnily enough, statistics can do only so much. Short corners are converted with a mix of speed, power, precision, skill, and deception, and the onus would be on Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, and Amit Rohidas to translate all their hardwork to results on the Kalinga turf.
In the absence of Rupinder Pal Singh, Sardar Singh, SV Sunil, and Ramandeep Singh, India are seriously short of big-match players. But with seven players from the Junior World Cup winning team of 2016 making the cut, coach Harendra Singh believes his team has enough experience of high-pressure matches.
"They already have the experience of playing in front of 20,000-25,000 home crowd. It's not pressure; they must enjoy themselves," he had said on Monday.
The substance of coach's statement will be put to test in a little over 24 hours from now, especially when India's best finish in 24 years is a fifth-place result in Sydney. That was the last time an Asian team won the World Cup (Pakistan) — a telling gulf between the two styles of hockey.
Bhubaneswar though is watching. With 12 major hotels of the city and a host of smaller accommodations recording full occupancy, the buzz in the city is unmistakable. On a sporting precipice, the Odisha capital is waiting with bated breath for the biggest hockey spectacle they've ever hosted. The fresh paints are drying, and much like the smell that newly-coated surfaces retain, the freshness in Manpreet Singh's team is there to be soaked in. And at the centre of it all, India are nursing a pipe dream.
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