The Indian men’s hockey team won its fourth Asian Champions Trophy title, cheered on by a capacity crowd. It burnished its credentials as the top side in the continent, at par with the best in the business, and set both the template and expectations for the Asian Games just over a month away.
After arriving in the city 68 hours before its first match and a lone session for the players to get a feel of the newly-laid turf at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium, the Indian team went through a lot in 10 days to emerge victorious on a dark, muggy night.
There were days when the host struggled: the ball wouldn’t go in, passes ended with opponents, and players appeared dazed. But there were nights when everything worked like clockwork, with the Indians skating on ice with ease. It was frustrating, concerning, beautiful, and wondrous. It was Indian hockey with its ebbs and flows, making even its staunchest supporters and harshest critics uncertain.
And yet, it wasn’t the old Indian team. There may not have been the magic of Mohd. Shahid dancing past the defence, but it had Manpreet Singh dodging defenders and interceptors at will, in impeccable control of the ball through the length of the field. It had a 35-year-old PR Sreejesh and Krishan Pathak stretching and leaping around in kits weighing between 18 and 23kg. It may not have had the fiery runs of a Dhanraj Pillay in full flow, but it had the likes of Mandeep Singh and Akashdeep Singh racing for the ball and, more often than not, being the first to get to it. This team, including its latest and youngest member Selvam Karthi, is known for its unwavering determination and exceptional fitness.
“Any team that plays us knows we’re fit, and they have to match us in all four quarters. But the biggest (advantage) is that, mentally, you start to believe that you have another gear. There is no guarantee that you will win just because you are fit. But you definitely would not be winning a lot if you were not. Fitness at crucial moments, like towards the end of the tournaments, is important. You have to have enough in you if you are chasing a game. Like we had to do (in the final), press for the whole second half. You still need to have that in you. Fitness is one of the main priorities of the modern game we play,” coach Craig Fulton admitted after the final.
The skills were always assumed to be there, and they were. Old-timers may continue to insist that the artificial turf doesn’t favour skills. But anyone who has seen the likes of Jamie Dwyer, Ashley Jackson, Robbert Kemperman, Christopher Ruhr, or Arthur van Doren over the years won’t believe them. Those who saw Shamsher Singh, Sumit, Vivek Sagar Prasad, Hardik Singh, Jarmanpreet Singh, Nilakanta Sharma, or Amit Rohidas here wouldn’t either. It puts a premium on fitness and finds a balance between the two. And in Chennai, the Indian team outran, outplayed, and outlasted the toughest challengers.
A jetlagged India started with an easy win against China but hit a wall against Japan. It ran circles around Malaysia, then struggled against Korea. It was only against Pakistan that the team began to find some structure and took it to the next level in the semifinal against Japan, a game as close to perfect as can be. It was again rattled by Malaysia in the final, going behind by two goals, and it had to dig deep to find a way out—and found it in a few moments of magic, an ability to switch gears, and an innate belief that it isn’t over till the final whistle.
Pakistan coach Mohammad Saqlain had quipped that India played only on fitness and PCs. What he did not say was that the fitness he was talking about did not develop overnight. The hard work gone into it, with support from all the trainers the team has had over the years—David John, Wayne Lombard, Robin Arkell, and now Alan Tan—is visible. And the ability to step up towards the end, to push hard and accelerate in crucial moments, has been the key for this side.
It is also a testament to the players’ faith in the system Fulton has brought in. That has been the Indian style, the attacking hockey that is a delight to watch. But that also leaves space for the rivals to mount counterattacks and take advantage of space at the back. It was also something Graham Reid approved of, coming as he did from the Australian school of hockey that plays a similar high-press, all-out game, giving little breathing space to the opposition.
Fulton prefers controlling the game and every zone of the turf, winning matches and tournaments, instead of seeking praise for brilliance without rewards. His playing style is influenced by Belgium and Germany, relying on holding, defending, and pressing hard when necessary, instead of going gung-ho all the time. It helps teams to stay on top of the game and close gaps at the back with at least two layers in action in every area.
It is also a lot more demanding on the players – the midfielders have to fall back or move up as the situation demands, and the defenders need to push ahead while constantly staying alert to not leaving the goalkeeper unaided. It is also a sign of the Indians’ fitness levels that they have been able to implement it with little fuss and sustain the momentum in back-to-back outings.
“Every coach has a different mentality. When Graham (Reid) was the coach, he was the best. Now, Fulton is the best. Every coach thinks about the betterment of the team. While we have brought in structural changes in our team, managing it at such short notice is a highly positive point for us. All credit to him for making us believe in it,” captain Harmanpreet Singh added.
The other important thing is trust—in the system, in the planning, and each other. The players have repeatedly asserted that on-field mistakes—and they do happen even to the best—are best forgotten right away, and it was the job of everyone to ensure they don’t linger either with the player concerned or on the team as a whole.
“I think you will find these are guys who are trusting each other. And also, trusting that they can do the job... I thought the guys were class. The younger guys stood up, and so did the older ones. So, it was a really good collective mix of those who were playing and those who came on to keep the pressure on. The character of the group was great,” Fulton added after the final.
Howsoever great the win may be, the team and the coach are aware that things will be different in a month. Playing against the teams they will face again at the Asian Games will help in fine-tuning plans, but it’s the same for the rest as well. Malaysia managed to rattle India in the first half of the final, potentially providing insight for future opponents. Despite finishing last, China’s physical play and home advantage make them a tough opponent. Pakistan has potential for an upset with individual performance, a throwback to the hockey of yore. Japan finished third, ahead of higher-ranked Korea, signalling readiness to defend its Asian Games crown. Meanwhile, Korea will be itching to recover from the disappointment of missing on a podium finish here.
Fulton will look to address India’s struggles with capitalising on opportunities and finishing games. And he is aware of the challenges.
“It is important to have a game like this. It counts. At the same time, it is not the Asian Games. But if you asked me if I would win the Asian Games and lose this final, I would vouch for winning the Games. So, our feet are firmly on the ground. We had this moment. We did not play well in the first half but turned it around. That’s character. But we still have another step to go,” he insisted.
“This is an important step because you need to know you can come from behind. It is easy to play when you are two or three nil up. It is not easy to chase. But also, if you’re two or three up and then the opposition scores, how do you still win? That is also a big challenge. I think we’ve covered a lot of those now pre-Asian Games, but we still have some work to do,” he added.
India has the weapon—as Sreejesh calls Harmanpreet—and the wall—as the skipper returns the honour—but it will also need all hands to fire to ensure gold at Hangzhou. A start, though, has been made.
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