HWL Finals: There’s not much glitter in the bronze

The joy of ending the year with a medal-winning performance is understandable, but Indian hockey is not without serious issues. Sooner the team management gets down to the brass tacks, the better.

India’s coach Sjoerd Marijne downplayed the issues concerning Indian hockey and instead preferred to highlight its positives, after India barely managed to win the bronze medal at the Hockey World League Final in Bhubaneswar.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

Two years ago, the scenes in Raipur were dramatic. India had just won the bronze medal at the 2015 Hockey World League Final, a genuine world-level medal after 33 years, upsetting a much stronger Netherlands in the shoot-out. The crowds had gone ecstatic, the players couldn’t stop screaming in delight and, despite the fatigue, there was no stopping the partying. And it was only a bronze medal.

On December 10, the Indian hockey team retained the medal in contrasting fashion, and it couldn’t have been more stark. There was more relief than delight in the Indian camp. Barring a couple of players who waved out to an appreciative crowd, nobody in the Indian team celebrated.

CLICK TO VIEW: HWL Finals in numbers

India’s opponent in the match for the bronze medal was Germany that, for once, was the underdog, struggling to put together a full team. The spectators in Bhubaneswar, perhaps aware of the mismatch, stayed back until the end to applaud the Germans. Even otherwise the city had proved its credentials long ago as one of the best places in the country for hockey, with spectators turning up in large numbers even for the classification matches. It was the same city that gave a standing ovation to Pakistan after it defeated India in 2014.

Members of the Indian hockey team with the Odisha Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik, after winning the bronze medal at the Hockey World League Final.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

 

The contrast in India’s two medal-winning performances, and the reactions to them also highlight the headaches that have been constantly bugging the team — lack of consistency, the ‘one step forward, two steps backward’ routine and the inability to crack the entry code to the top-four in the world.

Throughout the HWL Final in Bhubaneswar, all the old issues that dogged the Indian hockey team surfaced again. From the sublime to the ridiculous, India displayed everything it was capable of. Like a good coach, Sjoerd Marijne, who has repeatedly said that consistency is what he is aiming to bring to the team, preferred to downplay the concerns and highlight the positives. But there is no denying that there are problems with the Indian team.

Striking problems

It is a no-brainer that teams need to score to win games, so scoring in any field game is the key to success. But India’s concerns are two-fold. Its strikers are young and erratic; they are still learning. Whenever they score, they manage to get even the acutest of angles right, and whenever they miss, they miss by a wide margin even when shooting at an open goal.

However, barring Gurjant Singh, there is a lot of experience in the Indian forward line. Mandeep Singh may have graduated from the junior ranks only recently, but he has been in the Indian senior set-up since 2014, even playing the World Cup that year. S. V. Sunil and Akashdeep Singh have more than 200 and 150 caps respectively. That India scored only a total of eight goals in the tournament (excluding the shoot-outs) — the same as Loick Luypaert’s individual tally for Belgium — speaks volumes of India’s struggles with scoring.

Manpreet Singh was all alone. Barring Sunil, who isn’t exactly the most vocal of players in the side, everyone else was either younger or at the same level as Manpreet. Whether it was the pressure of captaining the team at a major event or something else, the talented midfielder was average after the first game, and his performance directly affected the team.   -  PTI

 

The inability to convert penalty corners has only added to India’s scoring woes. Through the HWL Final, India earned 21 penalty corners, but could convert only five. That’s a conversion rate of 23.8 per cent. The world over, 30-35 per cent is considered decent, and anything above 40 is good.

At one point, India’s Sandeep Singh and V. R. Raghunath together managed a conversion rate of almost 50 per cent. Now there are more options to execute penalty corners, but success has been few and far between.

India’s midfield lacked control, while its defence fared marginally better. While it would be easy to simply pick the players and rate them individually in each of their departments, the problem of Indian hockey is not that simple.

Captain Manpreet Singh has been part of the team’s leadership group for long and was the natural choice when the need arose earlier this year following P. R. Sreejesh’s injury. While he ably led the side at the junior level, he has always been with a bunch of experienced players at the senior level. Even in the Asia Cup recently, there was Sardar Singh at the back. Though he was not exceptional in his new role, Sardar was a calming influence and helped keep the proceedings on track from behind.

In Bhubaneswar, Manpreet was all alone. Barring Sunil, who isn’t exactly the most vocal of players in the side, everyone else was either younger or at the same level as Manpreet. Whether it was the pressure of captaining the team at a major event or something else, the talented midfielder was average after the first game, and his performance directly affected the team.

The absence of Sreejesh, more as a motivator and leader than a goalkeeper, Sardar as the elder statesman, and even Ramandeep Singh as a poacher seemed to have affected the team.

Disciplinary issues

Worse, the discipline of the team came into question. Deliberately sending the ball over the backline to concede a penalty corner (Harmanpreet), taking a hit after the whistle to cop a suspension (Mandeep) and a sliding tackle again resulting in a 10-minute suspension (Manpreet), all indicate that either the team slipped from its lofty standards of disciplined play or failed to understand the rules and the situation of play. In either case, it should be foremost among the issues that Marijne needs to address.

In a system advocated by Marijne that is heavily player-driven, the need for having players who can control the game or come up with alternate plans against tricky opponents cannot be overstated. Germany’s coach Stefan Kermas, after the bronze medal game, declared he had nothing to do with the team on the field. He, in fact, had a very easy job. “Today it was all from the team, they did everything,” he said. It is something that Marijne wants the Indians to do. India tried playing a system that can do wonders, as it almost did with Germany, but the team appeared to lack the manpower to execute it.

It would also be too simple to say that the Indian team grew under Marijne’s predecessor and compatriot Roelant Oltmans and has now deteriorated. International teams at the top level do not go from good to terrible overnight. Once a team reaches a certain level, it is rare for it to fall below those standards over such a short period of time.

The loss of personnel is inevitable, but a mature system manages to plug the gaps to an extent by default. India did this in the opening game against Australia and then against Belgium. But when it went bad, it went all the way to the bottom.

One of the positives stated by Marijne after the tournament was that the team was creating chances to score. “We played at the highest level. Now I know what happens with the team mentally. Now we can take steps that we need to change. We have to learn our lessons. The easier thing is to see what we didn’t do good. I know that. But if you create chances, it means you did something good,” he explained.

Blooding youngsters

The one area Marijne could rest assured is goalkeeping. Suraj Karkera stood like a wall between India and humiliation against Germany, while Akash Chikte took India to the semifinals with an incredible performance against Belgium, saving four out of the six shots in shoot-out. But one needs to remember that Sreejesh spent an incredible eight years as deputy to one goalkeeper after another before grabbing his chance. It will take time.

For now, Marijne has reposed his faith in the youngsters and expressed his satisfaction with their performance in the HWL Final. That was one of the disagreements between Oltmans and the federation, with the former not too keen on blooding youngsters too soon. But to build a team for the 2020 Olympics, that’s a welcome step.

However, the road to Tokyo goes through Jakarta next year, and it remains to be seen if the members of the Junior World Cup-winning side, ideal for the competition in three years time, will be as prepared for the preliminary test six months from now.

For now, the joy of winning a medal to end the year would be welcome. But the larger issues demand both time and intent. Sooner the team management gets down to the brass tacks, the better.

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