India in ACT: What the experts say

India’s triumph in the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy has come in for much praise, but former players warn that there are areas the team still needs to work on.

Dhanraj Pillay... "I am happy with India's performance, especially against Pakistan. Against them, ranking, game plan and strategy don't matter. Emotions take over, and we defeated them twice, in the pool game and the final."   -  PTI

India emerged victor in the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy, the first major tournament it took part in since putting up a rather disappointing show in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Talking of the team’s performance, former India coach and the 1980 Olympic gold medal-winning captain, V. Baskaran, said, “India has gained in confidence, which is important, but it was the only country amongst the opposition it played against in the tournament that has played consistently at the top level for the past two years. This made a big difference, and it showed in all the areas, be it defending, taking penalty corners or goalkeeping. In all departments, our preparation was better by at least 30%.”

 

Former India captain Dhanraj Pillay praised the team’s performance, especially against archrival Pakistan. “At the end of the day, you should see which team won the tournament. I’m happy with the performance, especially against Pakistan. Against them, ranking, game plan and strategy don’t matter. Emotions take over, and we defeated them twice, in the pool game and the final.”

Mental strength and composure

Viren Rasquinha was all praise for the Indian team’s mental strength and the composure it showed during the tournament. “India played good hockey and was consistent. It was good to see the team’s composure and maturity, especially in tough situations. We were 2-1 down against Korea but came back to equalise in the last five minutes before winning via the strokes. Against Pakistan also, we were leading 2-0 but they came back and made it 2-2. Things could have easily gone wrong, but the team showed its composure. To win from such situations is a very positive sign,” said the former India skipper.

Pillay also praised this aspect of the team. “We did not concede any last-minute goals — this is good. Mentally we were better prepared,” he said.

Forward line still a worry

India’s forward line was a disappointment in the Rio Olympics. The team scored only 10 goals in the tournament — the least among the quarterfinalists. In the Asian Champions Trophy, too, the forwards struggled, with full-back and drag-flicker Rupinder Pal Singh being the top scorer with 11 goals.

Pillay came down strongly on the Indian forwards, saying he felt they were being selfish “We need more field goals; the game has become very fast and you only have a fraction of a second to take a decision. I felt the forward line was a bit individualistic. When we played — with Prabhjot, Gagan Ajit and Deepak Thakur leading, me and Baljit Dhillon used to distribute the ball — I can assure you there was no selfishness,” he said.

According to Pillay, the forwards have to pass the ball more often and think about the team first. “The nation comes first. I request the forward line to pass the ball to whoever is in a better position, then you wait for the umpire’s whistle, and see the happiness and satisfaction you get when the ball crosses the goal-line,” he said.

Baskaran said that he has been concerned about India’s forward line for the past three-four years. “We don’t have forwards like Dhanraj Pillai, Mukesh or Mohammed Shahid anymore, but I liked the attitude in the Asian Champions Trophy. I liked the confidence of Affan Yousuf. Ramandeep Singh and Nikkin Thimmaiah are also ready for the big games. Their movement off the ball was good, their positioning and trapping has improved. They have worked on it after the Olympics, and it showed,” he said.

Despite the improvement, Baskaran said, more work needs to be done. “We can’t keep depending on penalty corners for goals, especially against the European teams. The forward line is meant to score, as we have seen from teams like Argentina and Belgium,” he added.

Need to build for the future

With key men such as S. V. Sunil, V. Raghunath, Mandeep Singh and Akashdeep Singh rested, players like Affan Yousuf and Pardeep Mor got the chance to prove themselves. Birendra Lakra, too, returned to the squad after a long injury layoff.



 

“It was a good return for him (Lakra), but he still needs to work on his movements,” Baskaran said.

However, the biggest positive for India was the performance of its backup goalkeeper, Akash Chikte.

“His performance was very important because we have become extremely dependent on Sreejesh in the last two-three years. I feel Akash could be our answer to this problem. No other ’keeper has impressed me in the past couple of years,” said Rasquinha.

Baskaran, too, was impressed by Chikte’s performance. He was of the view that the youngster needs to be given a bigger run in the first team. “Sreejesh needs to be given rest to recover properly. Chikte should be considered for future tournaments. He should be given a longer run,” he said.

With an eye on the future, Baskaran said India needed to have a bigger pool of players. “I’m not too sure how many of these players can continue for a long time. The likes of Sreejesh, Sardar Singh and Birendra Lakra cannot be replaced overnight. I feel this is the best time to build a bigger pool,” he said.

Baskaran also had a piece of advice for Sardar. He said the 30-year-old player should not play in the Hockey India League.

“The HIL is a big headache, there is no time for proper recovery and it is played at a high tempo. Players from other countries do take part, but then they don’t play so many domestic tournaments. We should really think about this aspect and use our players sparingly,” he said.

Looking ahead

With the 2018 World Cup to be played in India, the experts were of the view that coach Roelant Oltmans is leading the team in the right direction.

Rasquinha said there are areas the team still needs to work on. “Short corner conversion was excellent this time and good at the Olympics, we should keep at it. Also short corner defence. Better holding of the ball under pressure is also another aspect we need to focus on, especially against the stronger teams. But I still feel Oltmans is doing a fantastic job and the team is heading in the right direction,” he said.

Pillay also said that India should focus on beating teams like Australia, Holland and Germany. “Teams like Argentina and Belgium can’t be taken lightly either,” he said. He also lauded the team’s fitness levels.