Year in Review 2017: Men's hockey team showed promise, but must translate them to performances
While India won the Asia Cup in Dhaka and finished on the podium at the Hockey World League Final, glaring gaps remain in defence. Coach Sjoerd Marijne would do well to plug them in the World Cup year.
Recalibration is on the cards. Actually, it’s underway; a new act that will dawn on Indian hockey in the New Year. Once the pack assembles back in Bengaluru, team members will understand their roles. It’s vital as 2018 is a make-or-break year. How many times have we said that and tried to make sense of it? Yet we plod on, somehow or the other keeping our head above water. Surviving. Like a mountaineer caught in a gale while tethering on the edge of an outcrop.
2018 is the year of the World Cup. Come good at the World Cup in Bhubaneswar and all sins are scrubbed clean. Transgressions, faults, misdeeds of 42 years (India last won the WC in 1975), whatever they maybe, are forgotten. Forty-two years is a long time to hold onto a dream; a dream that one thought was real, guaranteed every four years. But we fell from grace. The world, in a way, had pushed us out of the ring. We were outpunched and wrestled off the mat. We failed to keep pace with the world as it crystallised skill, speed and aggression into a winning formula. Once the leaders of the pack, we found ourselves dazed by a new world, fresh thoughts, and a linear approach to what is a highly technical sport where mind and skill barely get a second to respond. It’s been 42 years since we responded.
The removal of Roelant Oltmans, a brilliant mind gone soft over the years, was good enough to keep us running in the middle of the pack. And that’s where we are at the moment, at sixth. In a way, it’s the worst position to be in — the ones at the top won't yielding while those at the bottom will be pressing constantly. One doesn’t know what really triggered the ouster of Oltmans. He was replaced by Sjoerd Marijne, an unknown 43-year-old Dutchman who, in his own eyes, was an “average” player but learnt a lot playing alongside the likes of Jeroen Delmee, Ronald Jansen, Marc Lammer and Piet-Hein Geeris. What also underlines Marijne's pedigree is the fact that in 2007, he was asked by Maurits Hendricks to help him train the Spanish team for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Spain won the silver. India were not in Beijing as they had not qualified.
Marijne’s appointment coincided with India winning the Asia Cup in Dhaka, an important victory but one whose celebrations needed to be guarded. In fact, it was like that. In Dhaka, the players went back to the hotel and slept early. They took an early Jet Flight back to Delhi, were well received at the airport and instantly went home.
Before going on a break, Marijne said, “It will give the team some belief as they have come through a turbulent period in the last six months. But that’s not what we are looking for. Indian hockey and the players need to examine themselves and ask — ‘what are we looking for? What do we want?’”
Answers are not easy. Since Ajit Pal Singh led the 1975 side to a World Cup win in Kuala Lumpur, captains who came after him have struggled. As the sport fell in popularity and wins dried up, fans, more than the players, couldn’t come to terms. They didn’t dessert the sport. They watched from the sidelines, once in a while coming to life when India won the continental competitions. Defeats and the occasional win on the international stage continued. Post-mortems happened regularly. Once in a while, epitaphs were written. But the players ploughed on as coaches came and went.
“It’s not been easy,” Marijne says. “I understand but I cannot do anything about the past. What is in my control I will do that. And at the moment it’s re-structuring the team and making them realise their potential and try and finish on the podium in 2018.”
Potential has been a dirty word, used and abused by coaches. But you do listen when Marijne talks about it. “I know there is a history to hockey in this country,” he says. “But now I have seen these players and I believe they can create something magical.”
Moments of magic have sustained India through what has been a winless four plus decades. Like in any other sport, winning or finishing on the podium at the Olympics or the World Cup guarantees a place in folklore. Failure to achieve that was also the reason why Oltmans was shown the door. The quarter-final defeat to Belgium in the Olympics at Rio rankled. Not because we lost, but the manner in which we were out-manoeuvred. And then came the defeat to Malaysia in the Azlan Shah and then the disaster at the Hockey World League in London. Losses to Malaysia and Canada ensured that Oltmans left a bitter man.
It brings us back to ‘potential’. If the players with ‘potential’ couldn’t raise their stock under Oltmans, can they under Marijne? Oltmans won Holland an Olympic gold and a World Cup gold, all in the space of two years — Atlanta 96’ and Utrecht 98’. Marijne won the Junior World Cup for women with The Netherlands. Maybe, it’s also right to talk about his ‘potential'. He has he shown enough promise for one to believe him when he says, “India will deliver.”
In an environment where coaches like Ric Charlesworth, Terry Walsh, and Tom van Ass have left, what is the guarantee that we will keep faith with Marijne or that his appointment won’t be just another short-term project? The results have been mixed so far. If his tactics were spot-on against Malaysia in the Asia Cup, India were under pressure against South Korea. Even in the final against Malaysia, we were sailing before the Malaysians came back to force us on the defensive. And then after a spirited 1-1 start against Australia in the HWL Finals, we fell to England and Germany. The match against the Germans was strange as they controlled possession. But we didn’t change the pattern. We kept playing counter-attacking hockey. The argument here is why didn’t we go for possession to control the game, avoid unforced errors and not give away the ball constantly in the midfield.
“Germany has been playing like that since I have been seeing them play hockey,” said Marijne. “We needed to play something different. We need to score off the chances we get.” India had the opportunities but the goals didn’t come.
Against Belgium, they played out of their skin. Combining skills and counter-attacks, they kept the Belgians guessing. But big errors let the team down, especially in the defence. “The boys will learn,” said Marijne. The question is when, and will it be in time for the World Cup?. India won in the shoot-out, but the match proved that consistency is the major bone of contention.
In hockey, a switchover is a matter of less than a second. The advantages are gone if the defence is caught on the wrong foot or defending in the wrong zone. It happened time and again. But we were not punished. In the bronze medal match, we conceded seven penalty corners. Marijne praised the defece, but the question could be flipped — the defence gave away seven penalty corners. On a good day for Germany, that could be three goals.
The experienced players in the team have already played a total of more than 1400 matches. To be able to put them into another session of changing patterns, tactics and most probably, the thinking process itself will take time and some even may not get it. But roles are being assigned. There has a lot of criticism aimed at Mandeep Singh. He has had his chances, but apart from that opening goal against Australia, there was more smoke than fire, and it's important to remember that Singh has already played 90 matches. S Uthappa has 135 matches under his belt, but in a few matches he was simply the ghost – couldn't be seen.
It’s not just about these two, but for India to win consistently, players will have to perform. They need to keep that intensity going. Germany may have lost the bronze medal to India at the HWL but their intensity didn’t dim. With just eleven players and a goalkeeper masquerading as a forward, they dragged India all over the pitch. Mark Appel, the imposter upfront even scored when Germany carved out the Indian defence like a turkey on Thanksgiving Day.
The most important lesson of 2017 is that in the New Year, they need to play against the best if they want to beat the best. Marijne’s boys need to play Germany, Belgium, Australia and Holland on a regular basis. The demons have to be exorcised. Sreejesh will be back and hopefully Surender Kumar at his fullback position too. Marijne is at his puzzling best when asked about Sardar Singh and his future in the team. If running at breakneck speed gives you a spot in the team, then of course even National 100-metre champion Amiya Malick too stands a chance. Marijne would have noticed that Harmanpreet made errors, that Rupinder Pal Singh was stranded a few times on top of the circle, that Lakra will need more time, that Amit Rohidas needs more exposure while the extremely talented Dipsan Tirkey needs time as well as mentored. But the most vital aspect of the game — control under duress — was missing.
The man who scored the winner against Pakistan in the 1975 World Cup final, Ashok Kumar says, “Sardar is such a player who does a good job in the defence and if we play him in half-line then there is no match to him. His feeding, his sense of passing is beyond imagination. A player cannot imagine what pass he will give. The team should try to utilize the game of Sardar Singh. I would say Sardar is a world-class player, who has the potential to play in any situation.”
In the 54th minute at The Kalinga with India-Germany locked 1-1, Harmanpreet Singh finally breaks the defence, slipping in a penalty corner. There is delight as he turns around, fist clenched, baring his teeth in a snarl. In a world where reason seems to be an endangered species, faith helps. For 42 long years, faith has been the glue, sticking random parts together, trying to make it whole. In the year of the World Cup, Sjoerd Marijne and the Indian team might do well to take a leap of faith.
Singh was admitted at the Vivekananda Hospital on 24 April after contracting the deadly virus.
"To be among the best, we have to constantly test ourselves against the best and I was very happy with the way I performed in the FIH Hockey Pro League matches against Argentina," Singh said.
Indian hockey forward Mandeep Singh says team's performance against Argentina a huge confidence booster
Mandeep said the coordination among players during the tours of Argentina and Europe was a huge plus point for the team.