At times, hockey can be theatre. In the real sense. Only those actors excel who can dominate the stage. India’s Sumit Kumar had just seen the South Korean goalkeeper Kim Jaehyeon save a goal-bound reverse shot. Instead of tying the scores at 3-3, it was 3-2 in Korea’s favour when the 35-year-old Korean captain Lee Namyong walked in. If he scored, Korea would take the Azlan Shah trophy home.
In such moments, players are prone to keep it simple. Nothing outrageous. Get the goal and be the hero. The mind becomes a monk. The Korean captain, however, decided to be the rock-star. In a show of skill, as audacious as they come, Namyong lifted the ball and flicked it over an onrushing Krishan Pathak. Umpire Steve Rogers watched the ball loop into goal, transfixed. It was a moment of magic, a form of illusion. For those who kept shaking their head, it was Korean witchcraft; Namyong’s form of occultism.
The Indian team stood in their dug-out. Eyes not on the celebrating Koreans. But far-away. This was a shock. On the same scale as the 2018 Asian Games defeat against Malaysia in the semi-final where the Malaysians equalised with two minutes to go and then beat India in the shoot-out. The quarter-final defeat against Holland in the 2018 World Cup at home did hurt. But the players could console themselves believing they were beaten by a team ranked higher; the World No 3. India were at five.
So, how did a team that had seven players over the age of 30 and three players over the age of 35 beat an Indian team whose mantra, through 2018, has been ‘young legs would do the job’? 15 Indian players are 25 years and below. Realistically, defeats happen. And it did in the final of the Azlan Shah.
But when it happens too often, answers are required.
Through 2018, India finished 2nd in the 4-nations tournament in New Zealand; finished 4th in the Commonwealth Games; finished 2nd in the Champions Trophy (shoot-out defeat in the final); finished 3rd in the Asian Games; joint-runners-up with Pakistan in the Asian Champions Trophy in Muscat (where the final was rained off); finished 6th in the World Cup and have now lost to South Korea in the Azlan Shah, a team that is ranked 17th; 12 spots below India.
On paper, the Azlan Shah should have been a walk through the park. A canter with comfortable victories to claim the trophy for the 6th time. The highest ranked team in the competition, after India were Canada (ranked 10th) who were beaten 7-3. Ten goals were slammed past Poland, the 21st ranked team. Malaysia, 13th, were beaten 4-2. The Asian Games champion Japan were beaten 2-0. It was in the pool match against Korea, a 1-1 draw that saw the warning signs pop up.
Korea know how to restrict movement. Yes, there is always that part of sport where goals need to be scored. But besides the fallacy created in the mind of ‘oh, we missed goals’, the truth is also that the opposition defence played well to restrict not only movement but push you to hurry your shots.
Take Shilanand Lakra standing on the post, virtually sticking to the far-post. The cross whizzed past his stick. A deflection could have done the trick. But positional sense tells us that standing a step ahead would have made the Korean goalkeeper leave the other post. Gaps could have been created on either side.
Yes, it is conjecture. So is a lot in life. But we plan, draw on the board, holler down players’ throats, create sheets, do the math, imagine and then tell each and every player to execute those plans. Probably, it’s the execution going wrong in Indian hockey. Otherwise, how do you explain a team that could keep running for 60 minutes, create 33 circle entries and have 11 shots on goal, not able to close-down a match? Korea had 13 circle entries and three shots on goal!
It’s easy to blame the team and the players. Especially when a mistake of the kind that was committed by Amit Rohidas. Not the first time. It happened at the CWG and then in the World Cup and now. Mistakes do happen. But when errors get repeated in key games, then it’s a lack of focus; of a player with the skills but not the mind to manage or concentrate on key moments and crucial stages of the game. The easier part as always explained by the management team is ‘we should have put the match to bed in the first half.’ That you couldn’t is the issue. It’s the core of the problem. Maybe, that’s where the need to focus arises. Maybe, India don’t have the correct set of players. Yet, again we come to the point ― an ageing but experienced team took us out of the trophy reckoning. Korea were also the team who were losing to Poland but pulled back not only to draw but score the match-winner in the last few seconds ― a sign of their grit.
Success in sports is a function of five factors: preparation, strategy, tactics, execution, and chance. We can safely say that preparation was the best (well, you have the management team for that) and from them comes the strategy and tactics. The execution is on the players. And if for three quarters it doesn’t work, then the last card is pulled out which should take care of ‘chance.’ India had five PCs in the final. But not one was executed. India had six clear chances in terms of field goals and only one was converted. So, by the law of averages, Korea deserved their victory. Even in the shoot-out, they opened a different book.
It wasn’t just a victory for Namyong’s boys but also for coach Shin Seok. After the match against Poland, analytical coach Chris Ciriello was asked whether Korea was only an experienced team or a smart one too? He answered: “Korea are a smart team.”
At the end of regulation time, the Koreans had definitely out-smarted India. One could easily say if the chances had gone in, we wouldn’t be discussing this. But therein lies the answer ― the chances didn’t go in. Korea played the waiting game. Shin knows very well the layers of issues afflicting India’s execution ― it’s not a problem that has crept up recently. It’s been a problem lying underneath the surface for decades. And most coaches never solved it. Or never had time on their hands to erase it.
Former Indian coach Terry Walsh, under whom India won the 2014 Asian Games, was commentating on the match. He said: “(It was) A game that was controlled by India in the first half as Korea conserved significant energy. The missed chances and opportunities proved costly ― not in only the first half. Korea ‘grew’ considerably in the second period and the mindset changed within the Indian camp. Still chances came, but composure was missing.”
After the final, India’s coach for the Azlan Shah and High-Performance Director, David John, said, “Unfortunately it’s become a habit (losing finals or crucial games).”
So who do we blame ― the coaching staff or the players?
The Azlan Shah doesn’t give any FIH ranking points. It’s a prestigious tournament, but not the World Cup, Olympic Games, the Pro League or even the discontinued Champions Trophy. Yet, a win is a win. Ask Australia who come with super-strong sides and have won the Azlan Shah a record ten times. A win is momentum. For the player, it’s about winning a final. Of having the bragging rights.
2018 was a bitter period. Coach changes, dismal performances, close finishes, the debate between ‘young legs’ and ‘experienced legs’, and the harsh, vitriolic end to the World Cup with the coach being sacked. The Azlan Shah was supposed to change that and give 2019 a bright, sparkling start.
But it has thrown up more questions than answers. Terry’s response was “avoid disruptions and interferences.”
But when asked why not closing off the match has been a recurring theme in Indian hockey, Terry’s reply was: “I don’t believe India can do that. The mentality required to do so is not part of the Indian DNA.”
Maybe, it’s time to change. Make every player a tactician. A physical specimen with a brain too. Or a belief in their DNA.
Tom Brady, 41, before leading the Patriots in the 2019 NFL final against Los Angeles Rams told reporters, “It's just part of who I am, part of my DNA. Those motivations run deep. When I get them scratched at, it's great motivation for me. It's just a part of who I am. Some people are born with great height. Some people are born with great size or great speed. Some people are born with things that are more intangible. I think competitiveness and the ability to compete has been an attribute for me.”
Nobody denies there is a certain naivety that comes into play in crucial moments. Just agreeing and not doing anything about it would be a crime. Players are suffocated by lacklustre seasons and a run without major wins. It’s time for the other group, the coaching unit, to show some nous.
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Updated Date: Apr 03, 2019 14:51:38 IST