HWL: a bronze after the Belgian blow!

By defeating teams such as Great Britain and the Netherlands, giving Belgium a close run and drawing against Germany, India have proved that they have the talent to take on the best of teams in the world.

Ending a drought... members of the Indian team celebrate after winning the bronze medal in the Hero Hockey World League Finals in Raipur.   -  Getty Images

"We are de-learning a lot more than we are learning at the moment and that is far more difficult than anything else," says India coach, Roelant Oltmans (in pic, giving instructions to the Indian players).   -  Getty Images

On top... Eddie Ockenden (left) and Matthew Swann of Australia celebrate after winning the final against Belgium.   -  Getty Images

Ending a 33-year wait for a medal in a major world-level tournament in dramatic fashion, by winning a match that had all the ingredients of a typical Indian blockbuster, should be reason enough for a grand celebration. However, hours after the Indian men’s hockey team won the bronze medal in the Hockey World League Finals in Raipur on December 6, half the team was preparing to leave for Mumbai to take part in the annual Bombay Gold Cup tournament.

It is symptomatic of how far the Indian team still need to go before their players can lay claim to being genuine sporting stars in the country. Despite winning medals in two big tournaments in one year — bronze at the Asian Games and the recently-concluded Hockey World League Finals — and clear signs of the team’s resurgence on the world stage, there is always a question mark on India’s performance, more importantly on their ability to repeat its achievements. The turnout for the six games that India played only reaffirmed this fact.

Dissecting India’s performance in the competition is not easy. While there were standout performers, no player or department can be singled out as being either brilliant or mediocre. A player like Ramandeep Singh, criticised for his poor trapping, scored twice in the last game. Captain Sardar Singh worked his magic in one game, bisecting the opposition defence with ease, but was out of place and out of form in the next. The team was structured well enough to be the envy of the Great Britain coach, Bobby Crutchley, one moment but disjointed the next, much to the astonishment of coach Roelant Oltmans.

India’s performance followed a pattern — a bad match followed by a great one. They were mediocre against Argentina but superb against Germany; unfathomable against the Netherlands but amazing against Great Britain; erratic against Belgium but determined against the Dutch when they met again in the play-off for the bronze medal. Such inconsistencies can be a headache for any coach and Oltmans is no exception.

Leading 5-3 with three minutes remaining, any team would be assured of a victory. Not India, who conceded two goals, as the third-place play-off against the Netherlands went into the tiebreaker.

“I cannot predict this team”, “We lack in consistency”, “This team can create magic but needs to do it repeatedly” are some of the phrases Oltmans has been using for a while now. Often, he can be seen pulling his hair in sheer frustration in the dugout, wondering at the novice-like mistakes the players make on field.

“If you ask me whether we can play as good as today again, I honestly cannot say for sure. But we will definitely work on our areas of concern,” the coach admitted after India’s victory against Great Britain. His fears were not unfounded, as India alternated between the pedestrian and the sublime in the next game, against Belgium. Every time India stepped up the attack and combined flair with control, the opposition were confounded.

“We did not expect this aggression from India, it was a very different team from what we saw before,” said the German coach, Valentin Altenburg, after drawing against India.

“India stepped up the game and dictated the tempo, and we just couldn’t match it. We ended up playing catch-up,” rued Bobby Crutchley.

“They were just far more determined and desperate to win, took all the chances and dived for every ball and then things started going their way, they were simply the better team,” said the Dutch coach, Max Caldas.

The Indians have the flair and the talent but lack control. It’s something they have grown up with, where showing off the skills is considered important to be noticed. Oltmans is trying to bring in control and decision making in terms of passing the ball but in the process, the individuality of a player appears to go missing. When the two combine, there is victory. When one overshadows the other, there is defeat.

Spaniard Jose Brasa was the first foreign coach to make an impact on Indian hockey and it is no coincidence that he was also the first coach to openly say that the Indians hold on to the ball for too long and do not pass, that they lag behind in the basic skills of trapping. Until then, being the most skilful without the requisite fitness was brandished as an excuse for failure. It’s almost five years since he left, and the team is still struggling with the malaise.

“We are de-learning a lot more than we are learning at the moment and that is far more difficult than anything else,” Oltmans said.

“It’s all about the way they have developed. Under pressure, the instincts take over the planning and then they commit hara-kiri. We are trying to sort it out, but it isn’t easy to undo years of learning,” he added.

Having defeated teams such as Great Britain and the Netherlands, giving Belgium a close run and drawing against Germany, India proved they have the talent to take on the best of teams. Despite the fact that some of these teams came with youngsters to try out before the Rio Olympics, there is no denying that the Indian team have improved a lot in their understanding of structural play, which has helped change the mindset and boost their confidence. Where the team continue to lack is the clinical execution on a regular basis.

That’s where tournaments such as the Bombay Gold Cup need to be factored in by the federation. The constant tinkering with a player’s style in the National camps and domestic events because of the personal preferences of the coaches means there is no continuity. Even though most national campers now stay away from domestic events due to a busy schedule, there are still occasions when they have to play in these tournaments. Unlike in the west, where there is one streamlined structure from under-12 onwards, India’s domestic hockey continues to be run haphazardly.

“These teams, including Australia are all good. But now, there is no aura about them. The feeling that they are unbeatable is gone, they are as beatable as any other on a good day,” said Birendra Lakra.

It’s now time to back that up on the field.