Dissecting India’s Hockey World Cup campaign: Coming up short on home turf

It might be harsh to bring in the C-word, complacency, but it’s inescapable. The world has moved on from Tokyo, but its afterglow lingers for India.

Bhubaneswar: Indian players react after losing against New Zealand, in the 2023 Men’s FIH Hockey World Cup match in Bhubaneswar.

Bhubaneswar: Indian players react after losing against New Zealand, in the 2023 Men’s FIH Hockey World Cup match in Bhubaneswar. | Photo Credit: Gurinder Osan

It might be harsh to bring in the C-word, complacency, but it’s inescapable. The world has moved on from Tokyo, but its afterglow lingers for India.

If location be the cornerstone of every successful property deal, timing would be its sporting equivalent. After all, it’s a world where microseconds make all the difference between creating and becoming history. Indian hockey, however, seems to have missed the bus on this one and ended up with an early World Cup ouster at home.

There is collective shock and despair at the manner of India’s defeat, but the signs were always lurking in the shadows of the glitz of the Olympic bronze 18 months ago. Building on it would have meant celebrating the achievement and moving on, focused on the next 3-year cycle till Paris 2024, with the ongoing World Cup and the Asian Games later this year as major stops to take stock of the progress. That didn’t happen.

Barring India and Belgium, most teams at the World Cup are in a transformational phase. Belgium is continuing with its process from the previous Olympic cycles of a core experienced group with a handful of youngsters who will be ready in a year. This process saw them go from Olympic silver to gold in four years and add a World Cup title. They have also managed to keep peak fitness levels. India is a different story.

Post-Tokyo recalibration didn’t happen

A few numbers: The current core group of Indian men’s probables is of 33 players; 27 of them continuing from pre-Olympic phase. The only players replaced in the camp were veterans who retired after Tokyo – Rupinderpal Singh, Birendra Lakra, SV Sunil, Kothajit Singh, Ramandeep Singh, and Sayyed Niyaz Rahim, who hasn’t been heard of since.

Only three names were added to the national camp held after Tokyo – Mandeep Mor, Suman Beck, and Dilpreet Singh. Beck is now out.

Simranjeet Singh, one of the key players at Tokyo, is out of the scheme of things. The Junior World Cup held last year saw only four, barring Vivek Sagar Prasad, of the 24 making the cut for even being in the national camp. The inclusions or omissions have never been explained, just like the selection of the final 16.

Questions have been asked whether this was the best 16 India could have played from the core group. This is what coach Graham Reid will confront. Ideally, the focus needs to widen a little – is this the best 33 we have and, if so, where is the next lot? Who comes in as and when the Indian team decides to transform? What are the options for the current placeholders? Who is pushing the current lot to step up their game?

Who decides the core group in the first place? What happens to players at the various levels of National Championships? If no player from the 100s out there is worth being even in the probables, what does that say about the system? Such questions need to be asked, also of those who often go under the radar: the selectors and the talent scouts (if any).

One step forward, two steps back

One area that has seen a very visible fall is in the team’s fitness standards. Robin Arkell had done wonders with the side. His replacement, Mitchell Pemberton, has not been able to sustain or move forward. The fluidity, pace and intensity of Indian players in the last few years were top-notch, even matching the gold standard of Australia, regardless of the results.

India’s Akakshdeep Singh (left) and Hardik Singh sits in the goal post before leaving the stadium after loss the cross over match against New Zealand.

India’s Akakshdeep Singh (left) and Hardik Singh sits in the goal post before leaving the stadium after loss the cross over match against New Zealand. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

Here, it was missing, slowing by at least half a yard, unable to put pressure on opponents for the entire 60 minutes, leaving gaps open in the midfield, surrendering possession and not able to pedal back to defend as matches progressed. It is a fact that errors, both physical and mental, often creep in when fatigue starts setting in. Experienced players fall back on muscle memory to execute what the body refuses to do; for the newer ones, it is more difficult.

A mental trainer might help, but the move can only supplement the physical alertness, not supplant it.

Also missing were Plans B, C or D and any inputs from the players to come up with one on the go. Creating chances and alternative options depending on the rival’s gameplay is something that separates the very best teams and players from the next rung. New Zealand and even Wales admitted they had figured out India’s dependence on speedy runs and goal creation down the right flank and worked to close that channel.

It worked. India did not know how to get out of it. Game intelligence from the players is a must; there is only so much planning a coach can do. Of course, modern hockey is all about technology and communication and real-time instructions from the sidelines. Still, India struggled.

It might be harsh to bring in the C-word, complacency, but it’s inescapable. The world has moved on from Tokyo, but its afterglow lingers for India. Having flung the albatross of 41 years without an Olympic medal in hockey, the players should have been hungrier for more — the World Cup, a step up the rankings and challenging those ahead, and a change of the medal’s colour in Paris. Half of that period is over and the ‘Olympic bronze medalists’ tag hangs around all the time.

Immediate concerns

Coming to the actual tournament and the issues that plagued the team in the here and now, it was always going to be tough. The struggles in continental events, including the Asia Cup and the Asian Champions Trophy (third in both), should have been a wake-up call. Mixed results in the Pro League should have made the senior pros realise they needed to get better.

The 4-4 draw with England and 7-0 thrashing by Australia in the Commonwealth Games should have shaken them. India’s outings in the last one year have only given heft to the perception that the Tokyo medal was more an aberration, and the team has quite some distance to go before being a regular at the top.

Harmanpreet Singh has been blamed for not converting the penalty corners and the miss in the shootout against New Zealand, as he should be. But not giving him a release point or back-up all through should be on the coach. If Amit Rohidas and Varun Kumar were the back-ups, they should have been relied on more, allowing Harmanpreet to take a step back. That didn’t happen.

India’s captain Harmanpreet Singh in action during the match against Wales.

India’s captain Harmanpreet Singh in action during the match against Wales. | Photo Credit: ANI

The senior pros failed to lead and the youngsters seemed clueless. The likes of Shamsher Singh, Abhishek and Sukhjeet put in the effort but lacked the sharpness to finish moves. Players expected to provide them with the chances and take charge if needed, including Mandeep Singh and Lalit Kumar Upadhyay, were found wanting. Hardik Singh was the lone creative midfielder all along the width of the field and without him the team struggled to keep control. Manpreet Singh was incredible as the rusher but in open play was nowhere near his best.

Missing HIL impact 

Last held in 2017, the Hockey India League’s biggest contribution to Indian hockey was making the players mentally tough as they competed with and against top players every day in highly competitive environments. Hardik Singh was the last player to come through the HIL.

In the years since, competitive outings have reduced to international tournaments. Even at the domestic level, the intense departmental competitions that provided a feeder-line to the national side have all but shut down, replaced with academies that train but do not provide competitive avenues.

Indian hockey team coach Graham Reid at the press conference on the eve of their match against Wales.

Indian hockey team coach Graham Reid at the press conference on the eve of their match against Wales. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

No amount of training can replace competitive matches and the steady decline in mental toughness — highlighted by the direct hit from top of the circle taken by Harmanpreet in the shootout — can be directly ascribed to not playing with and against big foreign players often enough.

Reid and Pemberton will find scrutiny unavoidable. A drastic measure would be sacking the coach, the regular Indian way, but it could end up destabilising the entire structure, especially with the Asian Games and an Olympic qualification just eight months away.

A more sensible option would be to give him time till the Asiad, sit and work out selection issues and ask the hard questions, on and of every individual player, young and old, and his role in the team. Hockey India also needs to think seriously about having a full-time mental conditioning coach. Reid might consider himself a man-manager with a mindset-approach to the game, but a professional is sorely needed. Pemberton could find the going tough.

Indian hockey team goalkeeper P R Shreejesh and Krishan Pathak discuss with team coaches after their match against England.

Indian hockey team goalkeeper P R Shreejesh and Krishan Pathak discuss with team coaches after their match against England. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

The only bright spot in this campaign was Krishan Pathak’s growing stature as a legitimate successor to P.R. Sreejesh in the goal. But India needs more players in every position to push the current stars. It is easy to blame mistakes by key personnel – players, coaches, support staff – in the immediate aftermath of a disappointment, but it bears remembering that performance in any major competition is only the culmination of weeks and months of preparation.

If Hockey India is serious about a course correction, it would do well to look at what preceded the World Cup going ahead. Anything else, big or small, purely on the basis of what transpired in Bhubaneswar-Rourkela would be knee-jerk.

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