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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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