Indian hockey 2018 review: Promise unfulfilled

For Indian hockey, 2018 was marked by frequent chopping and changing of personnel, and dashed hopes.

Harendra Singh (in picture) was put in charge of India’s women’s team in September, 2017, and a few months later, the men’s team.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

The year 2018 was a year of missed opportunities for Indian hockey.

India was expected to defend its Asian Games title in Jakarta, thereby directly qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It was also expected to make the semifinals at the World Cup in Bhubaneswar. The hope did not turn into reality.

India started 2018 ranked sixth in the world, and ended the year fifth. Frequent chopping and changing marked an unfulfilled year.

Disappointing outing

India had a disappointing outing at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in March, 2018. Sardar Singh, the veteran, had returned to lead the side, but India, with a win and a draw in the competition, finished fifth. Later, in May, 2018, Hockey India appointed Harendra Singh the coach of India’s men’s hockey team. Harendra had replaced Sjoerd Marijne, who had been given the responsibility following the departure of Roelant Oltmans in September, 2017.

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Marijne was back to coaching India’s women’s team.

The swap followed a weird scenario where Harendra, who had never coached a women’s team before, had been the head coach of the women’s team, and Marijne, who had never coached a men’s team before, the head coach of India’s men’s team. The arrangement came to an end following India’s loss to England in the bronze-medal match at the Commonwealth Games in April, 2018.

Sardar’s comeback

The captaincy also passed many hands. Sardar was dropped from the Commonwealth Games squad and Manpreet had replaced him as captain.

Hockey India had replaced Roelant Oltmans (in picture), the head coach of the men's team, with Sjoerd Marijne, who had never coached a men's team before. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

 

After Harendra took over as coach of the men’s team, Sardar made a comeback alongside goalkeeper P. R. Sreejesh, after a long injury layoff. They returned for the final edition of the Champions Trophy in Breda, Netherlands, where India recorded its best result of the year; it finished second, losing to Australia in the shootout.

Sardar was one of India’s best performers in the Champions Trophy. He marshalled the midfield with aplomb, and duly earned a place in the Asian Games squad. India went into the competition as favourite to retain the gold medal, but returned with a bronze, having lost to Malaysia in a shootout in the semifinal.

Wholesale changes

The failure to defend the Asian Games title and to have missed out on a direct berth in Tokyo Olympics was a serious setback. Sardar was the first casualty; he was dropped for the Asian Champions Trophy in Muscat, forcing the hurt midfielder to announce retirement. In the competition, India shared the title with Pakistan as the final was washed out.

Sardar Singh retired after having been dropped from India's squad for the Asian Champions Trophy. Photo: PTI

Harendra decided to make wholesale changes in the World Cup squad. He put his faith on World Cup-winning junior players; they were brought in place of experienced campaigners like Rupinder Pal Singh and S. V. Sunil, among others.

India’s World Cup squad comprised only six players with over 150 international caps. Champion Belgium, on the other hand, had 12 players with over 150 caps. India expected the young squad to rewrite history after 43 years but that was not to be as after an impressive pool campaign, during which it drew 2-2 with Belgium, the home team lost 2-1 to Netherlands to crash out in the quarterfinals.

Sixth place at World Cup

Nonetheless, the Indians did impress and finished sixth in the World Cup, its best finish in the mega-event after securing the fifth spot in the 1994 edition in Sydney.

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In 2019, India’s most important task would be to qualify for the Olympics. With the country opting out of the Pro League, it remains to be seen what the Blue Sticks will do to book their ticket to Tokyo. Harendra’s future as India coach is also under scanner.

The Indian women’s team had moments to celebrate in the year gone. It reached the final of the Asian Games for the first time in 20 years. But its dream of breaking a 36-year-old gold jinx remained unfulfilled; it lost 2-1 to Japan in the final in Jakarta.