India's juniors journey towards decoding 'simple hockey'

From sublime to ordinary, India's junior hockey team has displayed all facets in the three games so far in the World Cup but going into the business end of the competition, there would be no more second chances.

India needs to sacrifice individual artistry for a better team game.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

It is often said that the first step to success is accepting your failures. For the Indian junior men's hockey team, it is a realisation that may well be the difference between yet another promising outing gone sour and the biggest triumph of their international career so far.

Host India is one of the pre-tournament favourites for the title here but its inconsistency mirrors that of the senior team. From sublime to ordinary, it has displayed all facets in the three games so far but going into the business end of the competition, there would be no more second chances. And both the players and the coaches are aware of this.

“Nothing was missing but we just didn’t play simple hockey today. The good thing is that it has happened before the knockout stages. As the tournament progresses we will improve but every match is not easy,” coach Harendra Singh admitted after his team laboured to victory against underdog South Africa. “I was not surprised with South Africa’s performance but I was surprised with our performance because we didn’t play to our potential after the first 15 minutes,” he added.

Simple but effective

That term, 'simple hockey', has been the buzzword for this team. Just like 'total football' and its counterpart 'total hockey' earlier, simple hockey is what the Indian team is aiming for. But its execution is anything but simple.

For the players, it means passing the ball at the earliest possible opportunity, one-touch play in a fluid motion and more concentration on creating spaces off the ball for the final assault than showcasing individual flair and playing to the gallery. It may sound easy but, unlike the Europeans who grow up in such a structure, Indians tend to be more eager to display their artistry. The former worked perfectly against England and the swagger in the team after that game was justified. The latter didn't help the team in its last league match.

“We started well and were playing simple hockey but after scoring the goal we all started to play individual hockey, no one was passing the ball and so we faced problems,” captain Harjeet Singh admitted. “We carried the ball too long, tried fancy stuff and didn't pass,” Armaan Qureshi accepted. “We did not stick to our plan and began experimenting,” Dipsan Tirkey added.

Learning from mistakes

That the players realise their errors is heartening. Equally important is the fact that they are keen to raise their own levels, understand the magnitude of expectations from them and want to prove they are worthy of the attention. They also know that quarterfinals onwards, they cannot afford to make the kind of unnecessary mistakes they have got away with so far. Most importantly, the players appear to learn their lessons with every game.

Case in point is the discipline in the side. Against England, India received a yellow card at a crucial time and conceded two goals in four minutes. Both Harendra and manager Roelant Oltmans made their displeasure very clear as Mandeep Singh walked off the turf and downcast sat with his face covered. In the next game, despite all the aimless running and attack, there was not a single foul from the Indians.

What is also a positive sign for the team is the players' ability to look at the game and think of options on their own. For too long, Indian players have been used to spoon-feeding with any deviation from plan forcing them to look at the coach for instructions but not now.

Harjeet has been at the forefront of dictating the pace of the game in this side, accelerating and slowing down as per the match situation. Ironically, that is something South African coach Garreth Ewing said his team needed to learn. “One of the takeaways for our team from this tournament is that the players need to develop the understanding and maturity to take their own decisions on the field instead of waiting for instructions from the coach,” Ewing said.

On a rare rest day for the team on Tuesday, the players continued to reflect on things they could have done better while planning the road ahead. A win against Spain would mean it faces either Australia or Netherlands in the semis and neither would be easy.

“One thing for sure is that we can’t afford to play like this in the knockouts. The most important thing is to stick to our game plan and to be honest I feel we didn’t do that enough. But that’s a lesson for the next match,” Oltmans said. It's that simple, really.