Oltmans: ‘We must now set our sights on bigger events’

India has widened the gap with teams like Korea, Pakistan and Malaysia so much that it is currently the only Asian side in the Top-10 of the World rankings and within striking distance of other top-five teams like England and Argentina. India’s aim now is to go past them and challenge the likes of Australia, Germany and Holland consistently.

A new high... players of the Indian hockey team, which won the Asian Champions Trophy defeating Pakistan 3-2 in the final in Kuantan, Malaysia, celebrate on arrival at the New Delhi airport.   -  PTI

India's Affan Yousuf in action in the final of the Asian Champions Trophy. Affan, who has been inspired by a generation of national and international players, proved that hockey skills are in his genes too.   -  PTI

Roelant Oltmans... happy with India's performance, but wants to attain greater heights.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

Regaining the title it won five years ago was a reiteration of its superiority over the opposition. However, the Indian men’s hockey team had to add a dash of style and chutzpah to the proceedings to ensure it became the darling of the nation.

That the Asian Champions Trophy triumph came against archrival Pakistan on the day of Deepavali meant there was no dearth of celebrations, with everyone, from politicians to artistes to sportspersons, applauding the performance. In the midst of all this, a measured assessment of the team’s performance came from the coach, Roelant Oltmans.

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“I am proud of the boys and this is a great achievement. India did not have the option of losing, being the highest-ranked team in the competition and the favourite. That we kept our cool despite conceding two soft goals showed the mental strength of the team now. At the same time, we must now set our sights on bigger global events and winning consistently against higher-ranked teams,” the Dutchman reminded.

In a single statement, Oltmans not only put the win in perspective but also outlined his future ambition. He knows India is the best in Asia. Over the past 3-4 years, through a combination of high-intensity training, world-class infrastructure and plenty of exposure, India has widened the gap with teams like Korea, Pakistan and Malaysia so much that it is currently the only Asian side in the Top-10 of the World rankings and within striking distance of other top-five teams like England and Argentina. India’s aim now is to go past them and challenge the likes of Australia, Germany and Holland consistently.

 

India had an undefeated run in the Asian Champions Trophy in Kuantan, Malaysia, with victories against Pakistan (twice), Malaysia, China and Japan. Both the draws came against a stubbornly defensive Korea, including in the semifinal where India emerged winner via the shootout. What was heartening was not the win, but the way in which India handled the pressure of being a top dog after having played as an underdog for decades.

It is normal for teams to sit deep in defence against higher, more attacking teams and rely on counters. That every team in the competition tried to do the same with India highlighted its top position in Asia. At the same time, India did not try to go for desperate goals. The players stuck to a plan, created chances and concentrated more on controlling the game than going for random shots.

The team has finally realised that its target is to be the best in the world and not just the continent. This was exemplified in the way India fought back from arrears repeatedly without falling into disarray and then proceeded to accept the final victory with calm confidence and no histrionics, knowing well it deserved the triumph. For Oltmans, this self-belief and sense of belonging at the high table is the biggest achievement so far in his four-year stint.

New heroes

Almost all of India’s podium finishes in recent years were largely due to Sreejesh’s performance under the bar, starting with the gold at the 2014 Asian Games, which was followed by the bronze at the World League Final in 2015 and the silver at the 2016 Champions Trophy. This time around, Akash Chikte stepped up to the challenge and came away with both his reputation and confidence enhanced.

The youngster played three of the seven games, including the high-stakes final, and showed no nervousness. Though Sreejesh proved his class and reliability in the semifinals by saving the final shot, Chikte’s performance would give Oltmans the confidence to rest his talismanic goalkeeper more often and keep him fresh for bigger tournaments. “The team is what matters, and I was confident of my team-mates winning the final. It is difficult to stay calm on the bench but we knew we were better prepared,” Sreejesh said.

Chikte was not the only one. Affan Yousuf, who has been inspired by generations of national and international hockey players, proved that hockey skills are in his genes too. (Affan’s father Mohammed Yousuf, grandfather Khuda Dad and uncle Sameer Dad played for India.) He ran past defenders with authority and troubled the opposition constantly inside the circle.

Pardeep Mor had struggled to live up to expectations in the past but came good this time with the skills he had displayed on the domestic circuit all these years. He impressed with his runs down the flanks and his ability to find the gaps through the middle.

Nikkin Thimmaiah put the injury-prone days behind him to emerge the hero of the final.

All this came in the absence of several senior players, which makes India’s performance in the tournament even more memorable.

Return of the masters

Through the league stage, Sardar Singh appeared to be a fading force. He was played up front and then in the defence but was unsure of his role. Sent back to centre-half — a spot he had made his own in the past few years to become one of the best in the business — for the knockouts, Sardar flourished. Intercepting passes, distributing the ball, creating space — he did everything. He was the heart and soul of India’s performance in the last two games. Also proving himself was Birendra Lakra. Missing the Olympics would rankle the youngster forever, but having recovered from a serious knee surgery, he was back to doing what he does best — keeping the opposition at bay.

Oltmans admitted Lakra still needed to work on his leg strength but other than that, there was nothing to show that Hockey India’s 2015 Player of the Year had lost his touch.