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Hockey World League Semi-finals: Self-doubting India can dazzle; frustrate opponents with grit

Grappling with issues that are more ‘entrenched in the mind’ than the inherent talent and skill, the Indian hockey team will open its Hockey World League Semi-finals campaign against Scotland at the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre in London. It was at this venue that India achieved both an agonising low and a soul-lifting high.

In the 2012 London Olympics, India finished 12th — last among the participating nations. Then at the 2016 FIH Champions Trophy, they picked up a silver; arguably their highest podium finish since the 1980 Moscow Olympics where the national team won a gold. National coach Roelant Oltmans has already said that in 2017 and 2018 he expects the Indian hockey team to make a mark on the world stage once again by breaking into the top four. In other words, consistency has to be the calling card for the national team that surely aims to be on the podium, both at the World Hockey League final (December, 2017) and then at the World Cup finals (December, 2018), both hosted by the state government of Odisha in Bhubaneshwar.

File photo of the Indian hockey team. Image courtesy: Hockey India via Twitter

File photo of the Indian hockey team. Image courtesy: Hockey India via Twitter

On the face of it, Scotland doesn’t seem to be much of a challenge but it’s in their part of the world that they usually come good. However, hockey statisticians would readily point to India’s all-win record against Scotland. BG Joshi, hockey statistician, says that India has played five times against the Scots, winning all of them and scoring 22 goals in the process. In their last encounter at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014, India won 6-2. Numbers don’t lie. But neither do they touch the psychological pulse of a team correctly.

In the recent Sultan Azlan Shah Hockey Tournament, Great Britain (GB) won the trophy beating top seeds Australia in the final. And Alan Forsyth, the Scot playing for GB who starred with four goals in the tournament, will try and make an early impression in the tournament against India. Scotland knows that a good result against India will open the pool up, giving them a psychological advantage against teams like Canada and Pakistan. Gordon McIntyre, the midfielder, has played for Scotland 75 times and five times for GB. An admirer of Andy Murray, his tenacious play in the midfield should bother the Indian defence. Chris Grassick is the third Scot to have played for Britain, and was in the squad that played the 2016 Rio Olympics. He has played 91 times for Scotland and 19 for GB, scoring four goals for the latter, and will lead the team against India.

India turned up in London after playing a Three-Nation Invitation in Dusseldorf. They beat Belgium 3-2 and lost 1-2 while against Germany they drew 2-2 and then lost the last match 0-2. Training matches are good in bringing back the focus before a team embarks on a competition where results matter, which in turn then lifts the world ranking. India, at the this stage, apart from reaching the podium, needs good results as a top-four world ranking also helps them get a better pool at the World League Final and the 2018 World Cup finals.

In India’s Pool B, the other teams are Netherlands (4), Canada (10), Pakistan (13) and Scotland (23). The Dutch are the highest-ranked and along with Pakistan, in the overall tally of matches, the Indians have a losing record against them. Never before, in the last three decades of international hockey have teams been so even, at least the ones in the top eight. England, after the Rio collapse, are finding their feet and many do hope that it might be an India-England final. But as said, earlier, many of India’s best and worst results have come from fissures in their mind, rather than the lack of artistry in their wrists or the power in their penalty corner flicks.

Without their goalkeeper and captain, P Sreejesh, who is healing an injury sustained in the Azlan Shah, India will be under tremendous pressure at the back. But it’s a great opportunity for Akash Chikte and Vikas Dahiya to lay a claim to being the second-best goalkeeper in the country. Chikte, though, should fancy himself as being the under-study to Sreejesh. In the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy, Chikte played the final against Pakistan when Sreejesh had an injury. India won 3-2 with Chikte making some brilliant saves in the 3rd quarter when Pakistan were pushing India back into their own territory.

Rupinder Pal Singh's unavailability due to a pulled hamstring is a setback since he is a player on the rise and someone who was coming of age with his speed and accuracy in penalty corners. S Uthappa’s exit due to a family emergency will create an issue in the rolling substitution but India with a decent set of forwards should be able to cope. Uthappa has been replaced with Sumit, a core member of the 2016 Junior World Cup winning team but also a player who showed class and maturity at the recent Azlan Shah. His ball skills and vision that creates corridors of play even in tightly-bound defences is a reason to feel excited about the youngster. The Indian coach does gush about Sumit. “I agree he is very exciting but needs that experience to find his feet at the senior level,” says Oltmans. “I know he played very well at the Azlan and looking forward to the Tokyo Olympics, he is one of the players we have a lot of hope from.”

Rupinder’s replacement is Jasjit Singh Kular, who is a part of the 33-member core group that trained in SAI Bengaluru. With 46 international matches against his name, Kular should use this opportunity and increase his tally of five goals as a penalty corner flicker. Losing two key players is not a setback for Oltmans anymore. “With a core group who have been working together since 2017, February year, we have several options and I don't see this as a setback for us at all.” Oltmans does agree that Rupinder is an important player in the structure that he is looking to create before the Finals in December. “But injuries are a part of the sport and we have to cope with it.”

But Oltmans will be keenly watching the poaching skills of Ramandeep Singh, Mandeep Singh, Talwinder Singh, SV Sunil and Akashdeep Singh. This is the set of forwards that should be playing the next two years looking to be a part of the team flying to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics. And as Oltmans said, after the loss to Malaysia in the Azlan Shah that deprived India of playing the final, “Goals are needed from the forwards and if India wants to raise itself onto the podium, the forwards will have to deliver.”

Mandeep had a hat-trick against Japan in the Azlan and for almost four years has been the 'Kid on the Block'. It’s time those stats of 28 goals in 67 matches increase to proclaim the fact that he is ready to be on that road where former Indian greats have walked. Mandeep and Ramandeep are the pure strikers with Akashdeep creating the chances as the inside forward while Sunil’s sprint takes care of the defence and keeps them rattled.

It’s that release inside the opposition striking circle from Sunil that gets to be so crucial when defenders swarm around Indian forwards, and even an inch of space can be the difference between scoring and missing. If one speaks of Mandeep as a player whose time has come to deliver, then stronger words need to be used for Ramandeep who can shrug off the tag of an Oltmans favourite should he rise to form and sustain it. Thus making into the team has not always depended on his prowess in front of goal.

Oltmans also leans on stats to explain his view point on goals and forwards. “I don’t care who scores,” he says. “Just score those three goals.” And then he explains further. “In terms of stats, the team that scores three goals wins 90 percent of the matches.”

It’s been a treacherous ride since the high of the 1960s, 1970s and to some extent even the 1980s. Strategies, tactics do stand out. Stats can be impressive when looked at in totality. But matches are sometimes won in stand-out moments, in those seconds of inspirational skills and moves that can lift a team to the podium and make them believe in themselves. Hopefully, India can dazzle with skills and frustrate opponents with grit.

Updated Date: Jun 15, 2017 14:27 PM

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