Living with history is tough. If it’s a glorious one, the inevitable comparisons weigh down the present. A not so great past, on the other hand, constantly brings expectations of redemption that can test the best. In Indian hockey, though, the two are so intricately entwined that every achievement invariably comes with an asterisk, every performance with a rider and every appreciation with a revised, ever-more demanding target.
The country’s eight Olympic golds and a four-decade long medal drought in the biggest sporting arena was an albatross that was finally flung in Tokyo last year with a bronze that provided closure to an entire generation of players who lived with the ‘whither lost Olympic glory’ question. On January 29, 12 of those who stood on the podium at the Oi Hockey Stadium would be hoping to go one better and crack a far more difficult challenge — the World Cup.
The most elite standalone competition in the sport has been a far tougher nut to crack for the Indians, its conceptualisation and development in the 1970s coinciding with the gradual slide in the team’s dominance on the world stage — three medals, one of each colour, the last one a magnificent gold in 1975 — have been followed by an absence from even the top-four ever since. Which is a little baffling, to be honest, given that Pakistan managed to not just stay among the top sides but also win the last of its four titles in 1994.
Even though there was no lack of talented players and that the conditions, including a shift to artificial turf and the rise of European and Australian teams, were same for both countries, India continued to falter, initially by small margins and sheer bad luck before the yawning gap led to the ultimate humiliation — not being taken seriously. As any professional athlete will attest, being loved is great but being hated as a competitor is always preferable than being ignored. The long, painful climb back that started at the beginning of the previous decade has only now seen India inch closer to the top.
Consider this: Since 1975, India’s best performance has been a fifth place finish in 1982 and 1994 — ironically, both years when Pakistan won the title and the top four were the same teams — Australia, the Netherlands and Germany. The decline of Pakistan hockey has meant 2023 will be the second consecutive edition of the World Cup the founding nation of the tournament will not be a part of.
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But the other three teams are still going strong and Pakistan’s absence has been filled in the world order by more than one team — Belgium, Argentina, England — all of whom can go all the way. The increased competition for a shot at the title only makes it harder for India. Another miss would mean half a century of the unofficial national sport going without anything to boast of in the World Cups.
But the past that weighs down expectations with its skewed performance ratio for the side also holds seeds of revival. Tokyo gave a glimpse of the team’s potential. It also raised hopes of ending another drought, this one much longer — 47 years and counting.
For the first time since 1982, India will go into the World Cup as an Olympic medallist. ‘If we can do it at the Olympics, we can do it at the World Cup,’ seems to be the overwhelming narrative.
To do that, though, coach Graham Reid will have to work out more than a few niggles, and fast. Reid managed the impossible in Tokyo as the delayed Olympics worked in India’s favour but since then, all teams have had the same time and exposure to work out their best combinations and strategies, barring injuries.
A couple of key Indian players including experienced striker Lalit Upadhyay and midfield lynchpin Vivek Sagar Prasad are returning from long injury lay-offs since the Commonwealth Games five months back. While they have clearly convinced the team management of their fitness, getting actual match time is a different beast.
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There have been retirements too in the last one year and the replacements, though talented, are short on experience. Rupinderpal Singh and Birendra Lakra are gone, leaving gaps in both defence and drag-flicking.
The likes of Sukhjeet Singh, Nilam Sanjeep Xess, Shamsher Singh and Abhishek Pal have all proven themselves on the domestic circuit and in recent outings, but in every department of the game there is an untested face and the seniors will have to do the heavy lifting.
The coach will also have to ensure discipline among the ranks. Conceding penalty corners in the dying seconds of every quarter, earning disciplinary action for unnecessary fouls, getting physically aggressive at crucial moments are all irritants that can often change the momentum and cost the team dear — specially with the youngsters in the side trying to hurry things when trailing.
In recent Pro League games against New Zealand and Spain, India conceded an incredible 13 PCs to the latter in a game and nine to the former. At the Commonwealth Games this year, India barely managed to hang on to a draw against England, earning two yellow cards in a space of eight minutes and conceding a penalty corner right at the end. The coach, along with the senior players in the side, needs to bring in calmness and focus if the team has to avoid any mishaps.
India’s biggest challenges over years, at both the World Cup and the Olympics, have been the lower-ranked sides — the unknown factors that can force draws, change equations and muddle up the planning. The safest way to advance would be to finish on top of its Group — not easy with England and Spain being no pushovers — and then go ahead, one game at a time.
The last-minute draw against Poland at the 2000 Olympics when a win would have put India in the semifinals is well known. But lesser-known is the draw against South Africa at the 1994 World Cup that ended India’s chances of finishing in the top-two from the group and the struggle the team faced against them at the 2022 CWG semifinals, barely managing to scrape past thanks to a successful 58th minute PC conversion by Jugraj Singh who, incidentally, is not part of the World Cup side.
To be constantly under the scanner every time you take the field is not easy. To do so in the presence of 20,000 vocal supporters at every game is tougher. To keep doing it for more than a decade takes some serious stuff, and the likes of P. R. Sreejesh and Manpreet Singh have managed to do so admirably.
This might well be the last World Cup for the talismanic duo and a final chance to complete their medal cabinets.
Doing so in Odisha, a State that not only makes its love for hockey more than obvious but has also played a big role in turning the side into superstars, would be the ultimate payback by the team. And a fitting way to rewrite history books. Again.