Even before the Hockey Series Finals began in Bhubaneswar recently, the talk was all about India’s performance and how comprehensively it could win against the opponents, the highest of whom was ranked 11 places behind the host. Not winning was not an option; a loss would have been disastrous.
Eventually, the top two sides met in the title clash, India hammering 16th-ranked South Africa 5-1 for an easy win. For once, though, winning the final was not the real target; both finalists advance to the Olympic qualifiers. For the players, winning was important, mentally, after repeatedly fumbling in knockouts and finals in the last few months. But it was a test more for coach Graham Reid’s planning in his first competitive outing with the Indian side.
Winning also gave India crucial points which would become important when the FIH resets its rankings after September and draws up the pairings for the best-of-two encounters in the Olympic qualifiers.
In both departments, there were positives tempered with some concerns. The semifinal against Japan was critical, the Asian Games champion regardless of its ranking a far trickier opponent than South Africa. India came together after an indifferent league stage against such minnows as Uzbekistan, Poland and Russia to roll over Japan 7-2 in style. But it took time, a couple of quarters, to settle down — time that would not be available against tougher teams and time that Reid cannot afford at bigger events.
The biggest concern, of course, would be the lack of open goals from the forwards. Mandeep Singh can be a wizard with the ball but he had a dismal outing, out of position and unable to get the shots right. Gursahibjit and Hardik Singh’s inexperience was exposed, as was Vivek Prasad’s. They are all good players but still work in progress. Akashdeep Singh got some brilliant ones but messed some easy chances. It was all a frustrating outing for the Indian strikers despite the deceptively high number of goals — most of which came through penalty corners.
That would be a big relief. It was one department India had been seeking answers to, despite an abundance of players. The conversion rates for Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar, specially in the two knockout games, were better than the side’s average. Also welcome was Ramandeep Singh, returning after a year and rusty to begin with but getting into rhythm through the games, specially with his new role as a creator of chances and assistant to the younger legs up-front.
One would have to wait and see if the team management tinkers with the composition and how it finds the best balance. Players like Lalit Upadhyay, Kothajit Singh and Chinglensana are likely to be back after rest and recovery. S. V. Sunil remains uncertain but his experience cannot be counted out, as does Rupinderpal Singh.
Against the likes of South Africa, the Indian defence could afford to move up-front with Harmanpreet and Surinder at times lurking on the flanks far ahead, searching for scoring chances. The gaps were exploited by Japan and faster teams would pounce on counterattacks, making Rupinder’s experience important. Reid would then have to figure out the best combination at the qualifiers, figuring in the brittleness in the midfield as well.
That Japan, which had no need to exert itself and had nothing at stake, still went all out to play its best and improve should be the template for the Indian side that has often shown tendencies to let down the intensity in easier games. The best in the business do not bother with the level of the opposition, setting their own pace and standards and working to constantly improve them.
The good thing is the forthcoming tours of Japan and Europe that would give the coach more opportunities to look at his resources and have a clear idea about the structure he would want going ahead. The HSF was the first step to Tokyo 2020 but it’s done; the next and most important is yet to be taken and that should be the focus of the side here on.
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