Commonwealth Games Hockey: Australia, the thorn in India’s flesh

The women’s team had a bumpy ride to the semifinals, while the men’s team had a smooth ride to the final. Both faltered against the Australians, whose 24-year reign in the Commonwealth Games shows no signs of ending.

All’s well that ends well: Members of the Indian women’s hockey team with their silver medals after winning the bronze-medal playoff match against New Zealand. India let in a goal with 18 seconds to go for the final whistle but Savita Punia saved the day for India during the shootout.

All’s well that ends well: Members of the Indian women’s hockey team with their silver medals after winning the bronze-medal playoff match against New Zealand. India let in a goal with 18 seconds to go for the final whistle but Savita Punia saved the day for India during the shootout. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The women’s team had a bumpy ride to the semifinals, while the men’s team had a smooth ride to the final. Both faltered against the Australians, whose 24-year reign in the Commonwealth Games shows no signs of ending.

A year after India’s hockey teams impressed at the Tokyo Olympics, the Birmingham Commonwealth Games have reminded us that sport isn’t a mathematical equation with a single definite solution but an unsure science. All permutations and processes throw up new results.

In terms of final standings, both the men and women went one better on their Olympic finishes, the women winning bronze for their first Commonwealth Games medal in 16 years and the men returning with a third silver from the competition in four editions. The results were as expected, the performances not so much.

The elephant in the room, of course, remains the challenge posed by Australia. It has been the most dominant side in hockey since the sport was included in the Games in 1998. While the women have won four of the seven editions so far, the men have swept past opposition all seven times. That’s a mammoth 24-year reign that shows no signs of ending. The Australians were also the insurmountable obstacle for both Indians teams this time around — the women in the semifinals, and the men in the final.

The similarities between India’s men’s and women’s team in terms of journeys over the past one year are several: they have both lost key members to retirements or injuries, finished third in the Asia Cups with junior players, finished third in the FIH Pro League, and took fourth place at the Junior World Cups. They have also lost a large part of the support staff that worked with the teams up to and at the Olympics, although the chief coaches — Graham Reid for men and Janneke Schopman (the women’s team’s analytical coach under Sjoerd Marijne at the Olympics, took over as the chief coach after his dparture) for women — ensured there was welcome continuity at the top. Not surprisingly, the performance and progress, too, have followed a similar process as have the challenges.

“For me, the good thing is that the girls are getting dominant against other teams. They are taking charge and going on the attack, which is very good,” former coach Sjoerd Marijne said. Marijne, who was in charge of the team at Tokyo, has not stopped following the team’s fortunes since then and has been consistently supportive of their performances.

Hiccups

In Birmingham, the Indian women were expected to make the semifinals and they duly did, but not without hiccups. The start wasn’t auspicious, Navjot Kaur testing positive for COVID-19 and forced to fly back home. The opening games against Ghana and Wales were comfortable but the team appeared disjointed and without a plan, relying more on their superior skills. Ironically, the one game India lost in the group stage — to host England — was also its best performance in terms of executing a game plan and playing as a unit.

It took a special effort from Lalremsiami to get past Canada and ensure a semifinal spot, but it was also indicative of how the team could collectively switch off in crunch moments that may come back to haunt it later. Against stronger teams, it would be a disaster, something India experienced at the World Cup two weeks before the Commonwealth Games, finishing ninth. The inability to score after all the hard work in the middle was a concern while the biggest letdown was India’s penalty corner conversion: Gurjit Kaur was unable to find a way to score despite a truckload of penalty corners created.

“I think it is not fair to blame Gurjit only. It is getting more and more difficult to score from penalty corners for all teams, including Netherlands who have always been very good in it, not just India. The runners are getting better, both the first and second runners and with the goalkeeper covering one angle and the runners the other, it leaves hardly any space to take the shot without getting dangerous,” Marijne countered.

Deflated: India’s players look dejected after going down to Australia in the final. The 7-0 loss was as much a testament to the Australian domination as to India’s inability to break the mental block in big tournaments.

Deflated: India’s players look dejected after going down to Australia in the final. The 7-0 loss was as much a testament to the Australian domination as to India’s inability to break the mental block in big tournaments. | Photo Credit: PTI

India had famously surmounted the Australian hurdle in Tokyo, and the contest between the two sides this time involved controversy before India lost in the shootout. But to be fair, India’s tenaciousness could only take it so far against a side that was clearly the better one on the day. It appeared to be another case of so-near-yet-so-far when New Zealand struck 18 seconds from time in the bronze-medal match, but there was no denying goalkeeper — captain Savita Punia — this time. The team, despite the absence of Rani Rampal, seems to be on the right track en route to its next big target — the Asian Games next year — and there is no denying the possibility that the talismanic former captain won’t be back.

For the men, it wasn’t such a roller-coaster ride till the very end. Their path was much smoother, the only hurdle a drawn game against England in the group stage. Four-one up, India conceded three goals in the last 15 minutes. It was also a game that saw the Indians at their worst, both in terms of performance and discipline. While the English were equally guilty — England was the worst offender this edition of the Games, with 15 cards earned by 10 different players — India’s misconduct was a throwback to the Indian sides of the 1990s.

Fortunately, the team learnt its lesson and went back to focussing on its game instead. The semifinal against South Africa was a tricky affair and proved why playing a lower-ranked side that depends on obdurate, disciplined defence and quick sneaks into counter-attacks can be so dangerous. It was not the best performance from India but it kept its frustrations in check to enter the final and ensure a medal after missing out on the podium four years ago.

One-sided affair

The final, of course, was a disaster. The players have admitted being unable to play their own game and falling into the Australian trap. They were hurt at losing the gold and committed mistakes they shouldn’t have. The 7-0 scoreline might suggest Indian men’s hockey remains stuck in time, rekindling the nightmare of the 8-0 loss in 2010. But it’s as much a testament to the Australian domination as to India’s inability to break the mental block in big tournaments. As per official records, the closest India has come to defeating Australia in a major tournament – barring Test matches or the Pro League – was at the Champions Trophy in 2018 when Australia won on penalties. One would have to go all the way back to 2014 Azlan Shah Cup to find a favourable result for India and that has traditionally been a season-opening tournament for most sides to test new faces. The last time they met in a major event was Tokyo 2021, India losing 7-1.

Dissecting what went wrong isn’t possible simply because India would have had to play to a plan to fault it. It was classic Australian hockey — fast, open, one-touch, ruthless. They went for the jugular early and never took the feet off the pedal. They were opening up space in the midfield and defence at will, wrong-footing the defenders, and shaking off marksmen with a twist and turn. For the younger players in the Indian side, it was a harsh lesson in realising that world domination was a long way off.

Against the other teams, however, the Indians proved to be more than a match, especially on the fitness front. Germany, Netherlands, Argentina, New Zealand, and even Belgium on occasions have struggled to keep pace despite their naturally superior physical frame and height. The team has not sit back on its laurels post-Olympics and the advantage of a large group of probables training together for years has been visible in the Pro League with newer faces like Abhishek, Jugraj Singh, Pawan Rajbhar, Yashdeep Siwach and Rajkumar Pal showing promise.

Now, if only they could find a way to break the Australian jinx.

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