Sultan Azlan Shah Cup 2017: Indian hockey team need to be consistent to build for 2018 World Cup
Consistency, assertiveness and resolve should be the mantra for this Indian hockey team driving itself forward with an eye on the 2018 World Cup. Ipoh is the first pit stop on a journey that has just begun.
Indian hockey coach Roelant Oltmans has decided that at the 2017 edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah Hockey Tournament, the emphasis would be on style. He didn’t elaborate on what exactly ‘style’ meant for the Indian team playing their 20th Azlan Shah. But knowing the Dutchman, it certainly wouldn’t be dour, ‘defensive’ duties for the players, especially with a huge season coming up — the World League semi-finals, the Asia Cup and then the World League Finals.
In Oltman’s previous assignments, chiefly as coach of Holland’s '96 Olympic gold and '98 World Cup winning teams, the accomplishments then were achieved with a set of forwards who could have had alternative careers as sprinters — Stephen Veen, for one. Speed on the ball would be of essence when this Indian team troops out to play Great Britain in their tournament opener.
Even if the 2017 season is packed, the aim is for a podium finish at the 2018 World Cup in Bhubaneshwar. The Azlan Shah has always been a testing ground — in fact, since 1983, it has been a sort of ‘hockey lab’ for most teams, either beginning a season or resting players before a big tournament. But India has usually played their best set of players at the Azlan.
Diplomatic relations apart, both the Malaysian and Indian federations understand the need for each other and at most Malaysian hockey stadia, fans come to watch the Indians play; the India-Malaysia match is usually a sought after spectacle.
Oltmans' use of the word ‘style’, however, speeds up the imagination — pacy moves, intricate dribbles that bemuse and confound the defenders, passing that makes hockey look like a Chinese Checkers game. In other words, slowing down the pace down would be a tactical ploy not ‘our style.’ And ‘style’ needs to culminate in goals, which is where Oltmans is headed.
As a coach, he is in a comfortable spot. Regardless of what happens in the World Cup qualifying for 2018 Bhubaneshwar, the Indian team are already through as hosts. That’s a huge burden off the team leaving Oltmans to experiment with ‘style’ and focus on the podium.
“Our aim this year is to improve the levels and win the Asia Cup,” he said. Not that Oltmans would be terribly disappointed to finish on the podium at the World League semis and finals. If India reach the top four at the World League finals in Bhubaneshwar in 2017, their rankings and seedings would improve, which is of massive importance when teams are pooled at the World Cup. Being a World Cup host has given India and Oltmans a massive opportunity.
But that World Cup podium battle begins at the Sultan Azlan Shah Hockey stadium in Ipoh. It’s been 42 years since India won the World Cup in 1975. Oltmans has his job cut out. Most coaches believe it’s one of the most prestigious tournaments in the World. Some would even rank it in the top four, after the Olympics, World Cup and the World League. “I don’t believe in sending a young inexperienced squad to a tournament such as the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. The top-ranked teams in the world are gathered here,” said Oltmans.
India has a different link that goes just beyond playing in this invitational championship. It was here in 1985 that Mohammed Shahid sent the fans into a trance with his magical skills which fetched the Indian team the trophy scoring 49 goals in the process. In '91, the Pargat Singh led team with forwards of the class of Mukesh Kumar, Jagbir Singh and Dhanraj Pillay won the tournament with a total of 67 goals.
In '95, the tournament was shifted to Kuala Lumpur and at the Tun Razak stadium under Pargat Singh’s captaincy again, they beat Germany in a thrilling final after being level 2-2 in regulation time. India won 5-4 on penalties. The next title would only come in 2009 under the captaincy of Sandeep Singh and then again in 2010, India shared the trophy with South Korea under the helm of Rajpal Singh. PR Sreejesh would want to be the fifth Indian captain to lift the Azlan for the 6th time.
In the media interaction before the tournament kicks off on Saturday, Oltmans said that Suraj Karkera has been replaced by Akash Chikte. “Suraj has an injury and it wasn’t advisable to play him,” said the Indian coach. Speaking about balance in the team, Oltmans said experience is necessary in bringing out the best in the youngsters and that’s why experienced players like Sardar Singh can motivate and help the youngsters.
Gurinder Singh, Sumit Kumar and Manpreet Singh will be making their senior debut; all three were part of the Junior World Cup winning team. Harmanpreet Singh, Harjeet Singh and Mandeep Singh, even though part of the junior World Cup had already played for the senior team. Harmanpreet played the Rio Olympics and Mandeep was part of the 2014 World Cup. Harjeet, captain of the Junior World Cup winning team had already impressed at the 2016 Azlan Shah where India had finished runners-up to Australia. It’s a big tournament for Harjeet and he needs to lift his game which would make him an automatic choice in the midfield.
Oltmans believes the combinations are important. “It’s the mix that we are trying to achieve ahead of the three important tournaments this year, which are the World League Semi Final, Asia Cup and the Odisha Men’s Hockey League Final Bhubaneswar 2017,” Oltmans said. Away from the tournament circuit, India play Tests against Holland and Belgium in August. It’s difficult to figure out how many of these juniors can push themselves into the playing 16 by the time 2018 appears on the horizon.
India play Great Britain on Saturday in the tournament opener. Ranked one rung above the British at six, India will hope to start off on a winning note. British coach Bobby Crutchley is worried about the weather as the English have flown straight into mind-numbing humidity and heat from the cold in Britain. “We are doing our best to adjust to the weather and hopefully when we take the field against India this acclimatization would have helped us.”
Crutchley had taken England to No 4 at the 2014 World Cup but has also seen the side drop to 9th spot at the Rio Olympics. In the 2014 World Cup at The Hague, England beat India 2-1, thanks to a 69th minute penalty corner conversion; then came the 5-1 drubbing in the bronze medal play-off at Antwerp in the 2015 World Hockey League semi-finals. Revenge was sweet when India beat England 2-1 in the World Hockey League Finals in Raipur. It's transition time for both teams, yet Ipoh would see a winner capable of coping with the conditions and not experimenting for the sake of it. Crutchley was part of the 1989 English squad that finished 7th in the Junior World Cup in Ipoh. That’s a bit of history Crutchley would want to improve on.
Apart from the midfield, the ‘style’ depends on the forward line which has some genuinely skilled players like SV Sunil, Talwinder Singh, Mandeep Singh, Affan Yousuf and Akashdeep Singh. Eyes would be on Affan and Mandeep to deliver in the striking circle. If this core remains and performs, India has a great shot in creating a strike force that not only can get the goals but also hold the ball tightly with Akashdeep’s delightful skills. Sunil’s speed is what draws the opposition defence away. But of late, instead of being a pulverizing force and a lightning fast streaker on the right flank, he needs to be in the top scorers list too. It’s a title that suits his style of play but hasn’t come around that often.
Even though critics talk about Sardar losing his pace and as a result his dominance, a player with that kind of experience and skill can only be a winning factor when the chips are down. There is stress and strain on the Indian former captain to deliver and Harjeet’s name has been dropped as the future replacement. Youth combined with skills are an asset but its experience that stands tall in close encounters.
India is the second most consistent side in the history of Azlan Shah after Australia. They have played 19 times, winning five titles, twice runners-up and six bronze-medal finishes. In a year where every coach speaks of transition, post the Rio Olympics, consistency, assertiveness and resolve should be the mantra for this Indian team driving itself forward with an eye on the 2018 World Cup. Ipoh is the first pit stop on a journey that has just begun.
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