What India learnt from Azlan Shah Cup

What would be a concern for Roelant Oltmans is the fact that, of the three Rio-bound teams India faced, it could only beat Canada. It lost twice to Australia and though the team played well against New Zealand, defensive lapses cost it points. Oltmans has three months to iron out the creases, knowing well that even minor errors can exact a heavy price in the Olympics.

Indian players celebrate a goal against Pakistan. India played creditably against both Pakistan and Malaysia, but of the three Rio-bound teams that India faced in the Azlan Shah event, it could beat only Canada.   -  PTI

A second-place finish in a seven-nation tournament that you haven’t won in six years might sound good, but the silver jubilee edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup hockey tournament was never meant to be about the result.

With just over three months left for the Rio Olympics to kick off, this was one of the few chances coach Roelant Oltmans had to test his bench and try out his combinations. It was India’s chance to separate the ones who relish a challenge from those who wither away. By that yardstick, Oltmans would have been satisfied with the show the Indian men put up in Malaysia though there would also be more questions than answers to several situations that he would hope to solve quickly.

For long the tournament has been used by successive coaches to make claims, often false, of greatness. With five titles, India is second only to Australia in the tournament’s roll of honour. But playing a full-strength squad against experimental sides from Europe only exposed the gap in major competitions.

This time, it was different. Eventual champion Australia had come with its best 16 players. India not only had the least experience, but was also the youngest side with an average age of 23.5 years. It had four players from the junior ranks and at least a couple more who have hardly played at the top level — players who would not be on the flight to Rio. The takeaway from the experiment has been a mixed bag.

The biggest concern for the coach would be the gap between his No. 1 goalkeeper and his long-time deputy. For almost two years, Harjot Singh warmed the benches as every coach, from Terry Walsh to Paul van Ass, was reluctant to rest P. R. Sreejesh despite minor injuries in less-important games. The past week proved why. When Oltmans finally decided to give Harjot some much-needed experience, he was all nerves and carelessness, yielding place to an untested Akash Chikte who made no mistake in staking his claim.

Harjot’s casual attitude has been under the scanner for some time now and his performances did not help his cause. Even Oltmans, who never picks on individual players, admitted he had taken Harjot off “as punishment” for conceding a careless penalty corner against Canada. For now, the alternative to Sreejesh under the bar is nil.

Not all goals conceded by India — 15 in all — were goalkeeping errors. A shaky defence was to blame as well. With V. R. Raghunath rested and Birender Lakra injured, the Indian defence was short on skill and experience. Rupinderpal Singh was overworked and it showed in the later stages of a game when he was a shadow of his exceptional self in the Hockey India League. The replacements, though, came off a shade better than the goalkeepers. Harmanpreet has long been touted as the next big thing in drag-flicking, but the youngster showed he had the skills to be an effective defender as well. He was assured, confident and on target more often than not. His tackling was clean and he was clearly learning in every game. Already one of the more hardworking players, he seems to be the real deal and would be a big advantage going into the Junior World Cup. To challenge Raghunath or Rupinder for a place in the Indian team, though, there is still time for him.

The other defender Surender Kumar had an average tournament. For long a part of the core group, he got his chance to impress, but could not make the best of it. Brilliant on occasions and erratic at other times, Surender needs to bring in more consistency if he has any hopes of continuing to be in the coach’s scheme of things. As a unit, though, the defence definitely seems more secure than the other areas.

India’s midfield has largely held its own in recent times. With Sardar Singh and Manpreet Singh performing in tandem and Dharamvir Singh and Kothajit Singh/Chinglensana Singh marshalling the flanks, there has been little to complain about. But take out one of them and the plot changes.

While Kothajit and Chinglensana have been the ‘everywhere men’ of the side, giving the coach liberty to play them wherever needed — defence, offence, wings or the middle — the absence of Manpreet in the first two games was badly felt. It isn’t only about the skills. Manpreet possesses a good understanding of hockey and is one of the best readers of game situations.

It is something that is natural to the best players and Manpreet clearly is one of them. The difference in structure and organisation of the team in his absence and post return was evident to all — including the opposition. At the same time, India’s attacks from the right were reduced because of the absence of Dharamvir.

The attack, ironically, was the most experienced for India in the tournament, but regardless of the change in personnel, the problem of misfiring remains. The return of Nikkin Thimmaiah was a blessing. Out for long with a shoulder injury, the youngster seemed eager to make up for lost time. His combination with S. V. Sunil upfront was brilliant. Sunil was more controlled than usual and there were a few one-touch passes that resulted in some delightful goals, but overall, there were more misses than hits.

The energy and desire to score is there and with the likes of Devinder Walmiki, Akashdeep Singh, Mohd. Amir Khan and Lalit Upadhyay waiting back home, it would only be a happy headache for Oltmans. But the positioning inside the box, ball control and final touch remain a concern. India scored 18 goals in the tournament, but could have come away with many more with a little more co-ordination and targeted shots.

What was impressive was the show the team put up in some of the games. It showed what the team was capable of when in full flow. The win against Pakistan was highlighted more for obvious reasons, but the game against Malaysia was a real test of character, while even in the loss against New Zealand the team was more structured. Now if only the team could replicate those performances more consistently.

One player who remains an enigma is Ramandeep Singh. The coaches vouch for his hard work and sincerity and there are glimpses of talent in the way he manages to carry the ball on his stick and dribble past opponents occasionally. It’s a rare art and he manages it well. But in terms of scoring, he invariably tends to be either too early or too late for the ball. This is one problem Oltmans would do well to sort out soon.

In terms of world ranking, India at No. 7 was the second highest ranked side in the competition and, as such, the final being played between the top-two teams was in order. It’s a different matter that the team above it was World No. 1. And Australia proved comprehensively why there was a difference of 644 points between the two sides. What would be a concern for Oltmans is the fact that, of the three Rio-bound teams India faced, it could only beat Canada. It lost twice to Australia and though the team played well against New Zealand, defensive lapses cost it points. Oltmans has three months to iron out the creases, knowing well that even minor errors can exact a heavy price in the Olympics.