Sure, we all did dream this year; a lot of us big. And we did imagine there would be an Olympic medal flying home all the way from Rio, a jinx if there was one worth breaking – 36 years since an Indian hockey player had closed his fist over an Olympic medal. But the Indian hockey team did win one medal that India never imagined it would – a Champions Trophy silver. India had never crossed the bronze barrier, and here the team almost snatched the gold away from the awesome Aussies.
Olympic years are difficult. Almost everyone is focused on that – preparations, camps, rebuilding teams, player selection, every cog in the wheel becomes vital. The Olympic fortnight is a special one, for which a nation builds, breaks and builds itself over four years. “It’s the one that matters,” said V Bhaskaran, the last man to captain India to an Olympic medal. In fact, for a nation that almost thought that an Olympic medal was its birthright, it’s been a painful existence since we last won in Moscow in 1980. For those who look deep into Olympic hockey history, the 1964 Olympic gold in Tokyo had intrinsic value.
So when Roelant Oltmans announced, albeit cautiously, that India were best prepared for an Olympic medal and that the players needed to focus on the moment rather than think of the end of the match, one wondered if 2016 was the year when fans would line up the streets from the Indira Gandhi International Airport into the city; many teams including the 1964 Olympic and 1975 World Cup winning teams had been given a ticker-tape parade. Ajit Pal Singh who speaks the way he played – calm, relaxed and confident – spoke about an Olympic year. He is the only Indian to have captained a World Cup (1975) winning team and never won an Olympic gold. “It’s the pressure year as we all used to say,” he said. “It’s in your head constantly, this thought of winning an Olympic medal and it takes courage to not break down.”
The year, in fact, started badly. For those believing in perfect starts and superstitions, losing a hockey final to Pakistan at the SAF Games in Guwahati for the third time in a row spelt bad luck for the rest of the year. SAF may not be the medal that you would keep in your bank locker, but when playing Pakistan in the final, it’s not something that shines on the CV if you end up on the losing side. Pakistan took a 1-0 lead and even though India had two penalty corners in the last five minutes, the equaliser just wasn’t coming. Pakistan had won the hockey gold in the 2006 and 2010 editions as well, so a third loss really rankled. “We actually thought this would be a good start for the year,” said coach Romeo James. “But Pakistan did play well and had six Olympians to the only one for us.” In a way, that team contributed two players to the Junior World Cup side – goalkeeper Vikas Dahiya and Ajit Kumar Pandey.
Meanwhile, the men’s side had re-assembled and was gunning for the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament. It was also Roelant Oltmans' at the helm. After a rash of changes – Terry Walsh and Paul van Ass – the Dutchman had once again agreed that he would now take over for the Olympics. It was clear that continuity was needed to stablise performances. Terry had delivered the Asian Games gold and Paul van Ass had ensured qualification for the finals of the World Hockey League. Yet both found themselves out in the cold. Oltmans had learnt fast that to work with Hockey India, constant friction wasn’t such a good idea. While Terry coached India at the 2014 World Cup at The Hague, ironically, it was Oltmans who took on Hockey India when the HI President had said ‘India would have had leaked more goals if not for the presence of P Sreejesh’. Oltmans in an interview at The Hague, said, “The team is just not about the goalkeeper. There are ten other players who also contribute.”
It was at the 2014 World Cup that the foundation was laid for the team’s achievements in 2016. And the biggest one was the structure. India did lose to Belgium and England – both matches were going India’s way but last minute goals gave away the wonderful work done earlier in the matches. Sport is also about imagining what might have been – if India had not given away late goals, it could have been a step away from the semi-finals, and maybe things could have altogether changed, much earlier.
Yet players learnt. And the lessons were incorporated again during Oltmans reign. Everything was okay till the team reached the Azlan Shah final. But the powerful Aussies beat India 4-0. It seemed results against big teams were still way off. Oltmans was looking for a change in the composition of the team and in a bizarre twist of fate, it probably helped that the Indian captain was accused of sexual exploitation and alleged rape by a British citizen, Ashpal Kaur Bhogal. To keep him safe from a police or a court case, Sardar Singh was not taken to the Champions Trophy in London. Hockey India called it ‘resting’ the player for the Olympic campaign ahead. Surprisingly, he was the only senior player apart from Rupinder Pal Singh rested. India played out of their skins and reached the Champions Trophy final, where they probably played their best match of not only the year but probably the decade, against a very strong Australia.
“It was pre-decided that Sardar will be rested for the Champions Trophy as he has been playing non-stop for quite some time. He played in the Azlan Shah where Sreejesh was rested. Here Sreejesh is leading the side and Sardar gets much-needed rest,” said Hockey India president Narinder Batra. Chief Coach Oltmans said, “It is important that we approach the tournament, not just with a view to winning it, but also to execute our tactics well, and learn from past mistakes and keep evolving. This will ensure that when we reach Rio, we are physically, mentally and tactically strong.”
Watching an Indian side with a huge amount of pace in the midfield, the team selection echoed those views of the coach Oltmans and the HI President Batra. Sardar was removed as captain and Sreejesh wore the arm band. After playing for than a decade in the central midfield position, Sardar was asked to move up and play as inside forward. It was intriguing – both tactically and as a team decision.
Matches were close to call in Rio but when faced with a resurgent Belgium, India failed to tick off the tactical boxes. Leading, they gave it up and finally lost a match they seemed to have given up on a little easily. The fight back happened after Belgium led 3-1 and also they allowed their opponents the luxury of space. Constant pressure from the Europeans broke the Indians down. What many believed would have been a march to the semi-finals now was back to the drawing board for the next four years. India had won the Olympic gold in Tokyo 1964; maybe that city would be luck for Indian hockey a second time all over.
The pain of Rio spilled out in Kuantan, Malaysia where India won the Asian Champions Trophy for a second time after beating Pakistan 3-2. Sardar stamped his class by winning the man-of-the-match while Sreejesh was brilliant in the semi-finals. Rupinder Pal Singh came off age, finally, as a defender and penalty corner convertor with 11 goals. The Asian Champions Trophy provided a balm to the aching heart of Indian hockey, hurt by the quarter-final defeat at Rio.
“We can re-run the tapes any amount of time,” said Oltmans, when asked off the Belgium defeat at Rio. “But it’s over. And we lost a chance. Kuantan gave us happiness and a return to winning ways.” Oltmans had told the squad before leaving for Malaysia that only winning the trophy would do.
It’s been a year where much was promised. It’s also been a year where the advancement of the team has been perceptible, visible. And like when you step out into chilling cold air, filling in your lungs, tomorrow does appear bright and fresh. It was left to the junior side to step onto the podium, giving a resounding send-off to 2016 with the Junior World Cup. Smiling and shaking hands with the team was Narinder Batra, who became the President of the International Hockey Federation (FIH) in 2016; the first Indian to do so.
Yet in an Olympic year, the aches and pains of Rio would remain. Yannis Pitsiladis, sports physiologist and geneticist at the University of Brighton so very rightfully said, “You’re here once. You want to do something that matters.”
To end on an optimistic note, while, the world wraps it’s 2016 business up, Indian hockey can look at itself in the mirror and smile – It’s been a good year and the feet are ready to hit 2017 running.
Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.
Updated Date: Dec 26, 2016 16:33:53 IST