Hockey World League Final: Sardar Singh's exclusion surprising, but exemplifies Sjoerd Marijne's stress on youth
Marijne says the players not included in the team for the HWL Finals are still a part of the core group of 25-26 players and Bhubaneshwar would be a testing ground to try out various combinations to get the best balance in the team.
Sjoerd Marijne had a brilliant and enviable start as national hockey coach when India won the Asia Cup recently in Dhaka for the third time in their history. There were no clouds of uncertainty hanging around the Indian team in the Bangladesh capital. They went unbeaten; the 1-1 draw against South Korea did ruffle feathers. But now the Dutchman wants to consolidate. Marijne comes across as realistic and does believe in the knowledge that this Indian team is yet to break into the top three. So when the Indian team for the Hockey World League Final was announced on Friday, a few names which were not on the list caught the eye – former Indian captain and the team's talisman for long, Sardar Singh, the ever-dependable Surender Kumar as right back, Ramandeep Singh as the centre-forward and in the half-line, Satbir Singh.
The word ‘drop’ has multiple implications when it comes to team sport. In this case, Marijne clearly says the players not included in the national team for the Hockey World League Finals are still a part of the core group of 25-26 players and Bhubaneshwar would be a testing ground to try out various combinations to get the best balance in the team.
Importantly, coming into the team are players like Birender Lakra, Rupinder Pal Singh and Mandeep Singh, the first two from injuries. Lakra’s comeback gives the team solidity at the back simply because he is one of the safest players when it comes to using skills with game awareness. Marijne’s response to bringing in a new set of players for a tournament as important as the Hockey World League Finals was: “Yes, there is always a reason. I wanted to see the balance between Harmanpreet Singh and Lakra and also Rupinder.”
On Surender’s exclusion, considered by many as one of the best defenders in the country, Marijne says, “He needs to perform better and improve.” There wouldn’t have been a deadlock on Satbir as Kothajit Singh eases himself into the midfield position. It does come with a rider though from the national coach: “The midfield needs to be more consistent.”
Sjoerd also argues against the word ‘drop’. “They are getting rest but also remain inside the group as there is tremendous competition now for spots in the team. Players are showing more consistency and you can see the quality also improve. Players need to consistently improve.” Probably that’s where Sardar not making it to the national team should come as a warning that the former star and Indian captain should tie his laces a little more tightly and accept the fact that juniors are gaining ground at the same pace as the sport.
Bringing back Lakra after a prolonged lay-off straight into a high-intensity World League where the pace would be killing is asking for trouble. Lakra could have been eased into the low-key Asia Cup where he could have found his feet and not get saddled with the psychological baggage of an injury that may impel him to not take extra risks or push himself. It could also be a reason for the team to go into the tournament with six defenders instead of midfielders and forwards. Usually, you would pick a midfielder with defending skills to fall back upon in case the need arises for an extra man in defence.
Or maybe, Marijne is not too confident about his defence with promoted juniors like Dipsan Tirkey, Varun Kumar and Amit Rohidas. Varun did play solidly in Dhaka except for a few errors that happened because of inexperience when he got rattled with a few high balls, giving away a crucial penalty corner in the final. Malaysia didn’t punish the Indians. But Australia, Germany and England would. Tirkey had a foil in Sardar during the Asia Cup where if he was bereft of channels to pass the ball, he slid it towards Sardar. Now, of course, he would have statemate Lakra to fall back upon if space and position are squeezed. Not to say Tirkey doesn’t have the poise and balance. But there is always a difference between the attacks of South Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan and Bangladesh when compared to Germany and Australia. Sitting in Bengaluru while the team played the Asia Cup couldn’t have dramatically improved Lakra’s recovery. But historically, in Indian team selections, questions do remain.
Marijne is clear that as a coach he would invest in the future. In 2018, India play the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the World Cup (in Bhubaneshwar). It’s important to win the Asian Games as that qualifies the national team directly for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Not that performing in the Hockey World League Finals is not required. A semi-final spot here would push India’s ranking and ultimately give easier groups when the World Cup comes around. It’s also important to perform in front of home fans. Besides, television audiences would be bigger and sponsors looking for a sport on the rise would look at the podium and how high India finished in a tournament being played at home.
Responsibilities increase when you play at home. The Indian coach is, however, confident. “The players take responsibility, the quality of knowledge has improved, there is a high quality of technical skills and it gives me a feeling in my stomach that there is a huge amount of potential in this team,” says Marijne. The Dutchman believes that India played at 60 percent to win the Asia Cup, and there is a clear road map to increase work load and skill factor to break into the top four or top three. “Whenever a nation wins the Junior World Cup, it usually takes three-four years for the players to settle into their senior roles and now we have a nice mix of seniors and juniors with good penalty corner convertors and good goalkeepers.”
Back in Dhaka, Marijne had said, “I hate losing.” And today, he said, “I didn’t come here to stay at No 6. The team has to grow.”
With Kothajit back in the side, the midfield will also get more pace, plus the Manipuri also has good skills in snatching the ball away, apart from attacking down the flanks. Mandeep, after a disastrous Hockey World League Semi-finals in London, where honestly the entire team didn’t do well, will try and cement a place here. He has the balance but also needs to understand the difference between being subtle, looking good and scoring off the first touch or first hit. In London, he was caught out a few times trying to be cute inside the opposition striking circle, especially against Canada and Malaysia, which saw Indian hockey being stung by losses.
Hockey India’s high performance director, David John, believes this team is in the top two when it comes to fitness. “The camp was all about recovery,” he explained. “After the Asia Cup, the players were at the Surjit Memorial Tournament, when we needed to help them recoup at the camp.” John says there is no more an issue with fitness as the team is now pushing itself on skill efficiency. “We can’t go into the striking circle 30 times and only score once,” he says. According to the Australian, players are pushing forward trying to keep the ball in the front 25.
With seven tournaments next year, India’s focus will be on the Commonwealth Gamnes, Asian Games and World Cup, and hence the necessity to form a core group. “You cannot have the same group of players playing everywhere,” says John. “There is high internal competition and in the future hard decisions will be taken on players.” John believes the depth of the team is increasing and he cites Lakra as an example. “He is not very fast compared to Sumit who is probably the fastest in the team. But Lakra’s control is extraordinary.”
There is no doubt that there is a surfeit of talent. Mixing them up to find the right combination for the bigger tournaments is what a coach’s expertise is all about. Even though Marijne believes the Hockey World League Finals is not the litmus test, “but a test”, India need to maintain an upward trajectory. Even the players seem to relish the challenge. Absorbing tactical ideas, being inventive, creating a team that plays with ‘togetherness’ will ensure consistency, which will help it graduate from being a stop-start World No 6 team.
Goalkeepers: Akash Anil Chikte, Suraj Karkera
Defenders: Harmanpreet Singh, Amit Rohidas, Dipsan Tirkey, Varun Kumar, Rupinderpal Singh, Birendra Lakra
Midfielders: Manpreet Singh (C), Chinglensana Singh (VC), SK Uthappa, Sumit, Kothajit Singh
Forwards: SV Sunil, Akashdeep Singh, Mandeep Singh, Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, Gurjant Singh
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