Junior Hockey World Cup: Team work, India's winning mantra

Usually, a review of a tournament serves as a reminder of individual excellence in competition but Harendra Singh, the coach, has repeatedly stressed that he has not created players, he has made a team. It showed at the aptly-named Major Dhyan Chand Stadium in Lucknow. There was no Indian player among the top-10 goalscorers of the event. Not one Indian player received any of the individual awards in the tournament. And yet, the combined brilliance of this side put it ahead of the pack.

Harjeet Singh, the Indian skipper, was over the moon after India had won.   -  RAJEEV BHATT

Simranjeet Singh, who scored the second and the decisive goal for India against Belgium in the final.   -  RAJEEV BHATT

“Jeet gaye, jeet gaye, jeet gaye, hum World Cup jeet gaye!”

(We have won, we have won, we have won, we have won the World Cup)

It was not a chant but Indian junior hockey team captain Harjeet Singh, draped in the national flag, running wild and saying this to every one of his team-mates and coaches, trying perhaps to reassure himself of the realisation of the dream they had dreamt for the past three years.

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Two years, eight months. That’s how long the team has been together, starting from scratch and coming together from all corners, some knowing each other from either their academy days or on the domestic circuit but mostly unknown entities thrown together by coach Harendra Singh. In this period, they have gone from easygoing youngsters to serious professionals, broken in and gone beyond the limits of fitness they never thought was possible, learnt to dream a single dream and developed into a unit that put the final scoreboard above individual records against their names.

Winning the Junior World Cup, Indian hockey’s first world-level title since the previous win in the competition in 2001, was not just a tournament won. For every one in the team, including Harendra, it was a mission completed. It began well, and that was half the problem taken care of. For a long time, Indian hockey teams used to peter out towards the business end of a major tournament, drained due to poor fitness. Then came a phase when Indian teams would start slow and pick up speed later, but by then it would be too late. This side ended all debates on fitness and starting troubles, beginning at the top and staying there, through six tough games for a period of 70 minutes each, and then some more.

Canada taken care of, England thumped with force, South Africa done and dusted, the league games ended with India on top of its pool. Spain in the quarterfinals was the toughest outing but the Indians fought back to quell that challenge. Australia was expected to rain goals but in the face of unseen-before aggression from India, the global bullies of the sporting world had to stay guarded before losing out. And then against Belgium, the final opponent, the biggest of them all, there was, for some reason, never a doubt it would be an India win. The defensive Belgians were flummoxed as they trailed by two goals at half-time and the Indians preferred to defend that till the end, turning the tables on what, till then, had been the perfect Belgian style of play.

“Hum sabka ek hi sapna tha aur jab sab milke ek sapna dekhte hain to kaam aasaan ho jata hai.”

(We all had only one dream and when everyone sees a single dream then the job becomes easy)

Harjeet was speaking for everyone when he said this, in the presence of the entire team and the support staff. The media briefing room felt cramped but for once, there were no complaints of lack of space. If anything, it only added to the sense of intimacy and closeness in this team.

A look back at the tournament would give glimpses of everything that its fans have been hoping to see in Indian hockey for a long time. There was tremendous confidence in the boys, there was a swagger and the heads and shoulders never drooped. Thrice India trailed, thrice it came back from a goal down to win. The mindset was of a confident team, a team with self belief, a team as strong in the mind as the body. From the flamboyant Varun Kumar and Parvinder Singh to the shy Dipsan Tirkey and reticent Santa Singh, on field they matched their opponents eyeball-to-eyeball and, playing at home, let everyone know they owned the turf. The crowd at the venue did not make it any easier for the opposition. Belgium was disoriented in the final, Australia grudgingly admitted its players were overawed and even though Spain took the lead, it only served to trigger off further cheering for the Indians, who seemed to feed off the raw, brutal energy flowing through the stands that took a life of its own.

Unlike the new format of four quarters, the HJWC was played in two halves. Which meant there was more asked of from the teams in terms of fitness, and they delivered. Belgian coach Jeroen Baart had quipped that India was as fit as any other top team, including his own, but it would be seen at the end of the tournament on who had put in the maximum effort. After the final, he admitted India was decidedly the best of the lot. England called the Indians “ridiculously fast”, Australia applauded the “growth trajectory of this Indian team” and Spain was done in by “the relentless pressure put by India”.

“I can challenge any senior team in Asia at the moment, barring India, to play against this junior team and if we do not win or outlast them, I will quit hockey,” Harendra declared. His boys have given him the confidence to make such brash remarks, and get away with them.

Usually, a review of a tournament serves as a reminder of individual excellence in competition but Harendra has repeatedly stressed that he has not created players, he has made a team. It showed at the aptly-named Major Dhyan Chand Stadium in Lucknow. There was no Indian player among the top-10 goalscorers of the event. Not one Indian player received any of the individual awards in the tournament. And yet, the combined brilliance of this side put it ahead of the pack.

Harjeet Singh was brilliant in the middle but when he wasn’t Simranjeet shouldered the responsibility. Harmanpreet was off target with penalty corners but Varun Kumar stepped up. When they both didn’t, the forwards did the job with field goals while continuing to create more penalty corners. Aerial scoops were earlier a way to clear the ball and avert danger. Now it was used, with good effect, to set up goals. Diagonal crosses across the length and width of the field showed the players were aware of the space they had and how best to use it instead of hanging on to the ball in their own little zones. Outletting — intercepting the opponent’s first pass at the 16-yard free hit point itself — a concept Harendra has been advocating for almost a decade was India’s biggest strength, choking the opponent in its own quarter and not giving any space to move about.

The last time India won the title, half the side graduated to the senior side. Back then it had been all about dazzling skills that helped India fight competition. For various reasons, however, most from that batch could not achieve the heights they could have, given their potential. A similar step-up to the senior side is likely in the next few months but hopefully, the system in place would not let them fall off the grid again.