The revamped Kalinga Stadium here has a capacity of 15,000. On Thursday, at least 3000 more had managed to pack into the venue, hoping to see the Indian team advance to its first World Cup semifinals since 1975. That did not happen but how the powers-that-be view a 6th-place finish might well decide where Indian hockey goes from here.
Going by the hyperbole that discounts any logic, India was supposed to at least reach the semifinal, Dutch tenacity not withstanding. But moving away from emotions, anyone following Indian hockey for a while now would have taken a top-6 finish before the tournament began.
A look at the facts: Two months before the World Cup, India’s most experienced player was forced to retire . A month before the tournament, SV Sunil was lost to a freak injury during training. The Indian team was also without one of its key forwards, Ramandeep Singh, also because of injury. The average age of the Indian team was an incredible 23.5 years, the youngest of the entire lot.
To add to all of this, the team was battling negativity all around after the disappointment of Asian Games with certain team and federation officials only adding to the issues. “I have been forced to change my entire plan, I will now go all out and take risks. If it clicks, it will create history. If it backfires, no one knows what will happen,” coach Harendra Singh had said a few weeks before the tournament.
He did take risks — pushing youngsters with little or no experience to the forefront, giving more responsibility to players like Akashdeep Singh and Lalit Upadhyay who till then were used to simply scoring the goals and making the likes of Surender Kumar, Amit Rohidas, Varun Kumar and Harmanpreet Singh step up to the challenge and assist PR Sreejesh at the back.
It almost paid off. Against Holland, the team was in the match till the final whistle. It matched its more vaunted opponent all through, even managing to stave off a penalty corner playing without a goalkeeper.
It is anybody’s guess whether the team, without the pressure of playing a quarterfinal, would have made as many errors on Thursday. Or whether the unexpected realisation of being so close to a win made them rush to the ball and get the goal, something Harendra had been warning against all along. By most expert opinion, the game was India’s to lose if it did not come with the tag of a knockout. And that’s where the experience kicked in.
Despite all this, the team managed its best finish in 24 years, the previous being a 5th-place finish in 1994. If setting up a base, both in terms of players and planning, for qualifying and performing at the Tokyo Olympics was the yardstick, then Hockey India would do well to keep the existing set-up and work on it.
If, however, a medal here was all that was the target with little thought for future, then we are set for yet another merry-go-round, chopping and changing players and coaches and starting from scratch all over again.
The next few weeks might well decide whether the powers-that-be of Indian hockey have a long-term vision or look at reinventing the wheel.