London dims Indian dreams

Purely in terms of result, it was definitely a tournament to forget for the Indian men. More so given the fact that, barring Netherlands, all the other teams it faced were ranked much below and a semifinal spot was the least the team was expected to achieve.

The true newbies in the side – Sumit and Harjeet Singh – had decent performances, in the midfield. It was the seniors who let the team down.   -  PTI

A few minutes after India lost to Canada to finish sixth at the Hockey World League Semifinals, coach Roelant Oltmans slammed the assembled media for questioning the team’s disappointing run in the tournament.

“People in India and you media should understand. Every time these guys are losing, you are writing negative. These boys are fantastic hockey players... They create more chances than any other team in the world. Maybe we should support that, don’t look always at the result. Look at the process, and be sure that it is coming... Probably you will never understand what I would try to say, and I don’t care about it,” he snapped.

It would be easy to blame the coach for losing his cool and trying to defend what was clearly a below-par performance from the Indian men's hockey team. In fact, barring the two huge wins against an ordinary Pakistan, India’s outings were all far below the standards the team has set for itself in the last couple of years.

Purely in terms of result, it was definitely a tournament to forget for the Indian men. More so given the fact that, barring Netherlands, all the other teams it faced were ranked much below and a semifinal spot was the least the team was expected to achieve. It would be easy to say that it wasn't the best team, plagued as it was by injuries and absence, but even then, the players out there on the field were not exactly greenhorns. Ironically, the true newbies in the side – Sumit and Harjeet Singh – had decent performances, in the midfield. It was the seniors who let the team down. Eventual winner Netherlands too had a transitional team with five players having 10 or less caps. It didn't stutter.

A testing ground

The tournament itself was more of a testing ground for Oltmans, the ideal opportunity to measure his wards under pressure and against decent competition that had a lot more at stake than the Indians. “My biggest disappointment is that we did not have more competitive matches. We could have played Argentina or Holland one more time, because that is good for the development of young players and we have quite a number of them here,” Oltmans admitted.

READ: India goes down fighting against the Dutch

In terms of rewards, it held little importance for the side. The London event was a qualifier for both the HWL Finals later this year and the 2018 World Cup, India hosting both and as such already confirmed as host. The others were fighting for a ticket to both. “Somewhere deep, far away, you know you have already qualified,” Oltmans conceded after the loss to Malaysia. “Canada had to win to qualify (for the World Cup). We had already qualified. I think the attitude of the players was not at the required level,” he added after the Canada loss.

Statistics reveal an equally mixed picture. There was definitely no dearth of effort upfront but only a fraction of that was capitalised on. Indian forwards enter entered the opposition circle a whopping 177 times in the seven matches and had 95 shots on target. They could only score 25 goals through the tournament, seven of them through penalty corners and 13 against Pakistan alone.

Against Canada in the 5-6 play-off, India had a massive 47 circle entries but just 17 shots at goal and two goals to show for all that effort. Against Malaysia, it was 10 shots in 27 entries. In contrast, Malaysia had 12 shots at goal in 16 entries while Canada managed a shot every time it entered the Indian circle (11 in all). Oltmans would be right in claiming that India dominated attacks. Unfortunately, that alone doesn't help win matches.

The Indian attack of Ramandeep, Akashdeep, Mandeep and Sunil was patchy at best. Ramandeep may be vilified for his crucial miss in dying seconds against Malaysia but if anyone upfront appeared intent on scoring, it was him. Mandeep, in contrast, looked completely out of sorts.

Areas of Concern

But there is no denying that there are areas of concern Oltmans would do well to look at, and look hard. Penalty corners, for one. India earned 25 of them and converted 7, a decent rate of 28 per cent. But when you consider that eight of them came against Canada and the team still lost, it become different. The presence of Jugraj Singh in the Indian staff didn't seem to make much of a difference.

Another person whose role needs to be assessed would be analytical/strategy coach Hans Streeder. While a lot of questions are being asked, and rightly, of the team's planning, or lack thereof, Streeder's contribution to that department should also be looked into. While Oltmans as the chief coach is responsible for the overall performance of the side, the rest of the staff too has its own roles to play.

The mental aspect of the game is another concern. “After beating Pakistan, everyone thinks that is the only important game in the tournament,” Oltmans slammed his team. In which case, it would be incumbent upon himself and the rest of the staff, and maybe outside help, to set that right. The lack of desire and hunger to win games, the complacency in matches that are not “do-or-die” may well come back to haunt the team when they really need to up the ante.

The police case involving Sardar Singh clearly affected the player and he was nowhere in the game post his questioning. It was an off-field distraction but it dragged the team down on field. Seniors like Sardar, Sunil and Akashdeep need to be made aware of their responsibilities as leaders, something only Manpreet Singh managed to salvage.

Yes, the uplifting presence of an injured P. R. Sreejesh was missing in the goal. Yes, Rupinderpal Singh and S. K. Uthappa had to leave abruptly before the tournament. Yes V. R. Raghunath has been all but shunted out of the team and Birendra Lakra is struggling with fitness concerns. But if a team for 2020 is the objective, their back-ups need to be blooded at the earliest.

And going by the Indian show in London, there is a long way to go for them.

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