India needs to focus on the bigger picture after hockey Asia Cup victory

Winning the hockey Asia Cup is all right, but it cannot be the yardstick of India’s success. The team needs to perform well at the world level.

Players of the Indian hockey team celebrate with the trophy after winning the Hero Asia Cup at the Maulana Bhashani National Stadium in Dhaka, Bangladesh. India beat Malaysia 2-1 to regain the title.   -  PTI

The last time India won the hockey Asia Cup, Dipsan Tirkey was too young to hold a hockey stick (the team rode on three other Tirkeys to retain the title); S. V. Sunil was making his international debut; former coach Tushar Khandker was still a player; there was no Hockey India (the sport was being administered by the Indian Hockey Federation under the late K. P. S. Gill); India was yet to miss out on an Olympics for the first time ever, and the obsession with foreign coaches — after a brief, disastrous experiment with German Gerhard Rach — was absent. It was in 2007, in Chennai, in front of packed stands, that India defeated South Korea 7-2 to retain the Asia Cup. It was a team that had the skills but little beyond that.

A decade is a long time in Indian sports, and the current Indian team is considered among the fittest in the world. Almost every modern technological aid is available to the team’s support staff, and the players can match the best in the game. With the Asian Games, Asian Champions Trophy, the Junior Asia Cup and now the Asia Cup under its belt, India is the undisputed champion in the continent.

Banking on juniors

India’s success has largely been built around the juniors, with almost two-thirds of the Junior World Cup-winning team playing in the senior side. Besides Dipsan, India had Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar in the defence; Sumit Walmiki was phenomenal in the midfield, while Gurjant Singh proved to be an ideal poacher at the goalmouth. Sunil, relishing his role despite the burden of responsibility, had a hand in every assist that resulted in an Indian goal. Captain Manpreet Singh, a senior at 25, was calm and held the team together under pressure.

Inconsistent performance is one of the issues dogging the Indian team. And the coach, Sjoerd Marijne, is keen on addressing the problem.   -  V. Sreenivasa Murthy

However, the revelations of the tournament were the goalkeepers, Akash Chikte and Suraj Karkera, and half-back Lalit Upadhyay.

Upadhyay has forever been unsure of his spot in the Indian team, but after his performance in the Asia Cup, it would be impossible to leave him out of the squad. What is possible, though, is further tinkering with Sardar Singh’s position. The former India captain played as a free man at the back, but was erratic in his new role. How Sardar settles down in it would decide his future with the Indian team even though he remains technically one of the best in the squad.

India clinches 2017 Asia Cup

India’s triumph also vindicated the High Performance Director, David John’s insistence on blooding youngsters ahead of a tough, crucial year for Indian hockey in 2018. Former coach Roelant Oltmans’ reluctance to promote the bulk of the juniors to the senior side was one of the factors that went against him. The current crop of players has shown that they belong to the top.

Consistency issues

However, there are issues, and they need to be addressed soon. The good thing is that the team management is aware of the issues. And according to the coach, Sjoerd Marijne, inconsistent performance is one of them. “We still lack consistency, which was evident in the final against Malaysia. We should have scored more goals in the final, but our levels dropped too low in the final quarter, and it allowed Malaysia to make a comeback. We played very good attacking hockey and scored some beautiful field goals, but we were not consistent,” he said.

The Indian hockey team has managed to stand up to the best in every department, but it is yet to imbibe the ruthlessness that sets a top team apart from the rest.

Manpreet Singh, the skipper of the Indian team (right), and Sardar Singh seem a happy lot on arrival in New Delhi. Manpreet, a senior at 25, was calm and held the team together under pressure.   -  PTI

Marijne’s attempts to make the players equal stakeholders in not just the results but also the planning has, for now, paid off. The Dutchman has been vocal about allowing the players to decide the style of play they are most comfortable with and taking it into account while working out strategies. The team seems to have opted for attacking hockey and it appears to have worked well in Marijne’s maiden competitive match as India’s coach.

The one time India struggled in the Asia Cup was against a defensive South Korea and had to settle for a draw. Despite launching a barrage of attacks, India found it difficult to break the stubborn Korean defence. Marijne’s predecessor Roelant Oltmans, also from the Netherlands, who was sacked earlier this year, had claimed that it was the usual game-plan of lower-ranked teams to largely defend and try to counter-attack, and India needed a way to get around this. Given the way the team played, that issue remains unresolved.

The quality of the opposition

There have also been questions on the quality of the opposition. Oltmans was categorical that defeating the current Pakistan team cannot be a benchmark for success any more. It is in and against Europe that India’s victories count. Barring the Olympic champion, Argentina, India is the only other non-European team in the World top-10.

What the Asia Cup means for Indian hockey

Khandker, who assisted Oltmans for almost two years, and was part of the Indian team that won the 2007 Asia Cup, admitted that there are tougher battles ahead, but did not agree that the opposition was weak. “I don’t think the opposition was poor. Maybe the overall standard was not equal to the European level, but remember, the same Malaysian side beat us in London (in the Hockey World League semifinals). The rest of the teams were also more desperate because this was the last chance to qualify for the World Cup. They gave their all, but we were simply better,” insisted Khandker, who is the only Indian player to win the Asia Cup at all levels.

 

Celebrating a victory

Players who went on to become stars after winning the 2007 Asia Cup give their impressions on what winning the title in 2017 means to Indian hockey and the way forward.

S. V. Sunil: I didn’t know that I am only one of six Indians to win the Asia Cup twice. I feel extremely lucky to play for so long, and it feels really special. I do not have words to express my happiness. I have waited 10 years to hold this trophy, and now that we have won it, it’s amazing. More so since, like the last time, we did not lose a single game through the competition. Both the titles are special for me — 2007 because I made my debut in the tournament, and 2017 because I am a senior player with the responsibility of guiding the youngsters.

Tushar Khandker: I am happy that we have won it again; it’s a good sign and reiterates our position as the Number One side in Asia. As World No. 6 and top-ranked in the tournament, it was very important for us to maintain the position, and we were expected to win. There are a lot of new boys in the side, specially the goalkeepers, and it is now important to continue performing consistently. That is one area to focus on from here on, specially goalkeeping, so that we have a good pool of players in 2018. There are areas to improve, of course, but I am happy specially with the way the forwards scored field goals. I know there is talk of weak teams, but I don’t think the opposition was poor here.

Adrian D’Souza (goalkeeper): I am happy with India’s performance through the tournament; it is always best to come home with gold. The most important thing, however, is to not be content with this. This is just one step and the easiest of all. A win is always a positive step, specially for the young players to make their mark, and this team has done that. But it needs to build on from here and not take the foot off the pedal.

V. R. Raghunath: It was expected given the rankings. But with youngsters in the side, some seniors out with injuries and the pressure of expectations, it’s a great win. A title always raises the team’s morale and makes the players more confident. It also shows that we are developing a strong bench. But the team and management will have to regroup quickly and move ahead. We need to prepare at least three players for every position and have at least two in the squad for any tournament, otherwise it puts too much pressure on one person.

The HWL Finals will be a different ball game altogether, both in terms of competition and the opposition. We have been the top Asian side for a while, and now it’s high time to shift our focus away from Asia, on to the world. We need to move up from here, which I feel we are very much capable of, and look to get into the top-three.

 

There is substance to his assertions. Oltmans had indicated that the Indian team in London was not as focussed on winning as the others because it knew it would be hosting the HWL Finals and the World Cup. Which also trains the spotlight on the team’s level of focus in tournaments, specially the ones in which the squad has little stake. On the other hand, the question whether India deserves a spot at the World Cup next year on merit has now been answered. According to the players, it is a matter of pride for them to have silenced the critics who had questioned their place in the World Cup. They, however, admitted that it is too early to celebrate.

The Rio Olympics was a rude wake-up call for the team which, despite its efforts and claims, only managed to finish eighth, winning just two of its six matches. The Asia Cup triumph in 2007, too, had heralded a new hope of revival, but it culminated in India failing to qualify for the Beijing Olympics six months later.

Marijne and Manpreet savour Asian Cup victory

The upcoming challenges for the Indian team would be far tougher than what it faced in the Asia Cup. The Hockey World League Finals in December at home would see India playing against the best seven teams in the world; the Commonwealth Games would see India trying to dethrone the perennial champion, Australia; in the Asian Games, India will be fighting to earn a spot in the Olympics — this will be very crucial given the fact that India has pulled out of the proposed Pro League that would be one of the qualifying events for the Games — and then comes the biggest of them all, the World Cup at home.

As former India captain and member of the Asia Cup-winning team, V. R. Raghunath, said, “It’s time India stopped looking at Asia as the benchmark for success and looked at the global stage. The target now must be top-three in the world, not in the continent.”