A new hope or a false dawn?

Members of the Indian women's team celebrate their victory against Japan in the bronze medal match at the Asian Games.-AP

Terry Walsh and Neil Hawgood, the men behind India’s noteworthy performances in the international arena, have quit. But they have left behind teams that have the capability to take India back to the top. How their legacies are handled will be crucial to Indian hockey, writes Uthra Ganesan.

When India ended fourth in the Champions Trophy at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, it was an anti-climactic finish to a remarkable year, which saw Indian hockey overcome the odds, both on and off the field, in its attempt to regain lost glory.

The year 2014 is a watershed in Indian hockey. India became the continental champion after 16 years; it retained the silver medal at the Commonwealth Games and beat higher-ranked sides such as Australia, Germany and the Netherlands — the teams that would normally have been expected to steamroll the Indian side — in major competitions.

On the field, the Indian team performed below par at the World Cup in The Hague, finishing a disappointing ninth. This triggered rumours of a premature end to coach Terry Walsh’s tenure. Last-minute jitters continued to haunt the team, as India lost some of the games at The Hague with barely seconds left on the clock.

Walsh’s tenure did end prematurely after a bitter dispute with Hockey India days before the Champions Trophy, which upset the balance of the team. However, before that, the Australian ensured India’s ticket to the 2016 Rio Olympics. India overcame emotions and a fighting Pakistan in the Asian Games final to become the first team to qualify for the quadrennial event.

There have been times in the last decade when the Indian team performed well and raised hopes of a revival before fading away due to a variety of reasons. The difference this time, however, was the manner of India’s rise and the positive attitude of its players. With Walsh and Roelant Oltmans at the helm, the Indian men developed a ‘can do’ outlook. This was first visible when India beat the European powerhouse, Germany, in a close match at the Hockey World League Finals and then drew against it in the World Cup.

The signs of revival were also seen on the tour of Australia recently, where, after losing 4-0 to the home team in the first game, India bounced back to win the next three matches and claim the series for the first time ever. And in the Champions Trophy, India fought back from two stinging defeats to beat teams such as Holland and Belgium.

The steady rise of the Indian team can be attributed to several factors, but the most important was the level of physical fitness of the players, which was unheard of in Indian hockey. Barring perhaps Australia — which is also going through a period of transformation and adjustment with a new staff in place — India is now on a par with the fittest teams in the world. To the federation’s credit, despite the upheavals vis-à-vis the chief coach, it has managed to ensure the best physical trainers for the team.

With five major competitions in 2014, it was a hectic schedule for any team in the world. The fact that most of the core members of the Indian team played every single tournament and did not disintegrate, either physically or mentally, until the very end of the season was a remarkable achievement.

However, the last minute jitters that had afflicted the Indian team in the past relapsed in Bhubaneswar, as it lost matches in the dying minutes, including the nerve-wracking semifinal against Pakistan. This had more to do with the calendar than the ability of the players. India played the maximum number of big-ticket tournaments in 2014, and it was obvious in the Champions Trophy that some of the key members of the team were jaded. That they did not fall apart is creditable, but there was no denying the fact that some of them were desperately in need of a rest.

According to Oltmans, the team made the kind of errors through the tournament it had never committed earlier. Many players admitted that they knew they were making mistakes, but just could not rectify them. That, perhaps, was because of mental fatigue. The Indian team hardly got any time in-between tournaments to work on its shortcomings.

The emphasis on following a structured approach to the game also helped Indian hockey. Instead of running haphazardly and exerting themselves physically, the Indians played smart hockey. Instead of going all out to score all the time, the team is beginning to learn the importance of patience and striking at the right moment. The final against Pakistan in Incheon is a fine example.

“Pakistan played like we used to. I guess they were surprised that we did not fall apart and charge at them despite trailing in the match. They expected us to get worked up and commit mistakes, but this team has learnt how to keep its emotions in check during a match,” Walsh said after India’s victory.

If an Indian player can keep his emotions in check against Pakistan, it is unlikely he won’t be able to do so against any other team. This matured thinking — that matches are won and lost, as much in the mind as on the field — is something that has been the biggest takeaway for India in 2014.

The Indian women too did not lag far behind. Participating in just two major events, they won a bronze medal at the Asian Games and finished fifth at the Commonwealth Games. More importantly, the Indian women’s team was a lot younger with far less international exposure than the men’s team. The women’s team coach, Neil Hawgood, asserted that the core players of the side are good enough to help India qualify and be competitive at the Rio Olympics two years on.

Hawgood, though, would not be the one taking the women’s team to Rio. The Australian decided not to renew his contract with the team, citing homesickness after two and a half years at the helm.

India’s achievements in 2014 not only raise hopes for the coming year but also add to the pressure of performance. The men behind the teams’ performances in the international arena have quit. But Walsh and Hawgood have both left behind teams that have the capability to take India back to the top. How their legacies are handled will be crucial and will determine if the year 2014 is a turning point in Indian hockey or yet another false dawn.