For new-look India, new plans and lessons in search of success

The biggest difference for India at the 2018 Hockey World Cup has been in the defensive structure of the side. Having switched between several styles for the last few years, India has for a while been playing a more aggressive game.

Dilpreet Singh (in foreground), with Mandeep Singh taking a step back, has gotten to take more shots at goal.   -  PTI

“More than answering anyone else, I am answerable to myself, and my conscience and I have opposed unfit players in the past,” coach Harendra Singh said explaining the exclusion of a less-than-100-per-cent fit S. V. Sunil in the Indian squad. If that meant missing his experience of more than 200 international in a tournament as important as the World Cup, so be it.

The decision also meant the team was without three of its most experienced players, one each in every department, with teenagers being asked to step into the big shoes. Apart from Sunil, Sardar Singh has been lost to retirement and Rupinder Pal Singh to poor form. And the Indian team had its work cut out to perform with young legs with loads of inexperience.

To its credit, the host has managed to do that admirably so far. It has seen roles being changed, responsibilities switched and tactics tweaked to stay ahead of the opposition. Akashdeep Singh moved away from being a scorer of goals to a feeder. Manpreet Singh has had to double up upfront and at the back to use his experience, ceding the purely midfield role to Hardik Singh. Even Mandeep Singh, himself still learning, has had to take a step back and allow Dilpreet Singh to take more shots at goal.

But the biggest difference has been in the defensive structure of the side. Having switched between several styles for the last few years, India has for a while been playing a more aggressive game that many have insisted is its natural strength. The two may sound contrasting, but then that’s the thing about modern hockey. Every department is dependent on every other area to sustain as a team. A more attacking style requires a much tighter defence and incredibly fit fullbacks to constantly run across the field.

Against Belgium, threatening to score off every move in the first half, it was the quartet of Varun Kumar, Amit Rohidas, Surender Kumar and Harmanpreet Singh that stood firm even as they constantly ran all the way up to the opposition half in the second to create openings. “I have never seen such a fit Indian team ever and the credit for it goes to our trainer Robin,” Harendra Singh said after the game.

“I think India’s become much stronger since the Olympics, it’s defensive structure has become a lot more organised and it is difficult to get a lot of chances against them,” Belgian captain Thomas Briels admitted. “We only had a few PCs (penalty corners) and not a lot of easy goal shots and they always have dangerous strikers in the circle.”

India has also begun using the aerial balls a lot. “The opposition is only on the field; the air is all yours to play with,” Harendra Singh has always said and implemented with success with the junior team. Here, the scoops and high passes have been one of the major creators of scoring chances for the host, with the team employing two strikers on either side of the net right at the back line to use them.

“We know our defenders have the strength to scoop the balls all the way up to the back line at the other end. Having two strikers at the back helps create space and stretch the opposition. It gives our strikers to go for a goal and if we are marked, it opens up space for the midfielders to take a shot,” Lalit Upadhyay, a member of the Indian squad, explained.

Even the short passes are now played in the air to bypass the opposition. Diagonal crosses to both change the flank and clear the field are used freely, relying on improved accuracy of passing and trapping. The wingers running in tandem on either side to switch flanks without warning and keep the opposition wondering which side the shot might come from has required all players to have uniform speed and the team has managed that as well.

Not every thing has been good, though. The inexperience has come through under pressure and it has taken a strong reminder from the management to stick to the plan. Ironically, while the structure has been good, the skills that are its USP as per every team have not been able to help overcome tight situations. The youngsters have struggled in one-on-one situations and phases in a match when the team seems to forget the basics might come back to haunt it in the long run, as it did when a few moments of fading cost India the semifinal against Malaysia at the Asian Games.

But perhaps the biggest change has been in the players’ reading of the game and their ability to finally take own decisions on the field, understand the opposition plans and adapt quickly. Decision-making on the field has always been the bane of Indian hockey, spoon-fed as they were from the sidelines. “My players took a few minutes to understand what the Belgians changed in the fourth quarter but once they did, they adapted and changed fast. That is their intelligence,” Harendra Singh said.

That might also be his biggest contribution to the side, regardless of what happens through the tournament.