A good chance to recover lost ground

Captain Marvel…the Indian team’s performance has often been linked directly to that of skipper Sardar Singh. The World Cup would be no different.-

India will be hoping to get back into the top echelons of world hockey. Its performance in the 13th edition of the World Cup may well decide the longevity of the existing team management as well as the future direction of the team, writes Uthra Ganesan.

Four years ago, the Indian men’s hockey team thrashed archrival Pakistan 4-1 to kick-start its World Cup campaign. India eventually finished eighth, the victory against Pakistan being the host’s only success in the competition, but the result was still considered satisfactory.

Everything has changed since 2010 — the players, team management, even the structure of the sport — and everyone would be hoping for a fresh start to the revival of Indian hockey at The Hague.

“Results are important, but the success of every tour cannot be judged by results alone. It depends on what your targets are from the tournament and for us, the World Cup will be about being measured alongside the world’s best,” India’s coach Terry Walsh had said, making it clear that the targets are realistic.

While host Netherlands is aiming for a rare hat-trick of titles on home soil, India will be hoping to get back into the top echelons of world hockey. With the Asian Games, scheduled later in the year, being the primary target for Walsh and the High Performance Director, Roelant Oltmans, India’s performance in the 13th edition of the World Cup may well decide the longevity of the existing team management as well as the future direction of the team.

Strengths: The Indian team’s greatest strength remains its flair. The present squad has the ability to defeat most teams on its day. Players’ poor physical strength, which has been the biggest drawback of Indian hockey for a long time, is a thing of the past with the team adopting new fitness techniques, scientific training methodology and customised diet. Barring a few youngsters, the Indian team can match the best in terms of fitness.

On the field, India’s back-line is the most experienced and, not surprisingly, its strength. Sreejesh under the bar has been rock solid. Rupinderpal Singh and Raghunath not only handle the defence with ease but are also amongst the world’s best drag-flickers.

Weaknesses: The team’s mindset. A good beginning is essential for the Indian team to go far though, unfortunately, it invariably starts on a losing note in major competitions. The confidence level of the players is directly proportional to the results. A poor result pulls down the team’s game and the players commit hara-kiri; they falter even in the most basic aspects such as passing, trapping and controlling the ball. In 2010, the win against Pakistan did give India the impetus, but a thrashing at the hands of Australia in the next game was too much for the team that it did not recover from that defeat.

In addition, the inability to innovate on pre-decided game plans according to the demands of the situation is another problem. So, the Indian team’s biggest weakness is not physical but psychological — something that Walsh has admitted to and has been working on.

There was bad news for the team as Ramandeep Singh suffered an injury during India’s warm-up game against Argentina. He was hit on his right eye socket, the impact of the blow also damaging his cheekbone. The striker was rushed to the hospital where he underwent surgery. He has been ruled out of the World Cup. Lalit Upapdhyay has been named as Ramandeep’s replacement.

Things to work on: The forward line is the least experienced in the present squad. In the last few tournaments, the Indians have repeatedly missed sitters in front of the goal, especially at crucial junctures. Players such as Mandeep Singh and Akashdeep Singh are still raw, but have been with the national team long enough to assume responsibility.

Opportunities: Nothing is easy in a World Cup, but India can still take heart from the fact that it is in a relatively easy pool. Barring Australia, it has the wherewithal to get past all other teams in its group — England, Spain, Malaysia and Belgium — and has done so in the recent past.

Threats: Overconfidence and mental fragility. It may sound strange but the Indian team sometimes tends to swing from under-confidence to over-confidence in just a span of a few games. The team needs to guard against slipping into a casual mood when playing against Malaysia, as much as it needs to avoid being overawed by Australia. Walsh insisted that the team’s mental strength has improved. “The level of self-belief in the team has improved significantly after the last Europe tour and phenomenally since the World League Round Four. I don’t think that should be a problem,” the coach said.

Watch out for: Sardar Singh, the captain and the heart of the team. His innate talent to control the ball and find gaps, his ability to play anywhere on the field and his reading of the game are phenomenal. It isn’t surprising that he has repeatedly been included in the annual World XI team.

The common refrain among coaches, from Jose Brasa to Walsh, is: “Sardar can do anything.”

He is among the fittest players in the world, and the Indian team’s performance has often been linked directly to that of Sardar. The World Cup would be no different.