Junior Hockey WC: A learning experience for the youngsters

If there was a silver lining to the Graham Reid-coached side’s otherwise disappointing performance, it was that India spotted several talented players who might go on to serve the country in future.

Promising lot: Indian juniors in action during the World Cup. Notwithstanding the odds before the Kalinga test, several Indian players showed what they were capable of while playing against the best.   -  BISWARANJAN ROUT

A fourth place finish was definitely not a desirable outcome for defending champion India, which hosted the men’s hockey Junior World Cup at the spectacular Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar. If there was a silver lining to the Graham Reid-coached side’s otherwise disappointing performance, it was that India spotted several talented players who might go on to serve the country in future.

It augurs well for India as it is keen to improve upon its bronze medal-winning performance in the Tokyo Olympics and earn a better finish in Paris 2024. Harendra Singh, who coached the Indian team to a title win in Lucknow in 2016 and mentored the USA side in Bhubaneswar, saw a “lot of depth” in the Indian team.

“Winning and losing are part of transition. This will happen to most of the teams. Fourth place (finish) is a good result (for India),” said former India player V. R. Raghunath.

Reid, who does not like to take individual names, too, stressed on the ‘learning experience’ for the youngsters rather than the overall outcome.

Similar is the thought process of the coaches of top European nations, laying importance on grooming the up-and-coming players the right way.

Triumphant: Argentina players celebrate with the cup after defeating Germany in the FIH Junior Hockey World Cup 2021 final at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar.   -  BISWARANJAN ROUT

 

Not just the top ones like champion Argentina, runner-up Germany, third-placed France, Netherlands and Spain, but also the lightweights like the USA, Canada and Egypt (which got a chance primarily due to the withdrawal of competitive sides like Australia, New Zealand and England) also treated the platform to prepare their under-21 players to build a team for future.

Reid, who finished his Olympics assignment by guiding the senior Indian side to a bronze medal in Tokyo and joined the Indian juniors about a month ahead of the JWC, rightly pointed out that lack of enough exposure against foreign teams due to the pandemic was a major hurdle during the preparation phase.

READ: Reid rues missed opportunities after India's defeat in third place playoff

In fact, seven of the Indian players made their international debut in the JWC.

“All the teams grow during a tournament like this. It is a tough ask to come to a world (level) tournament like this with zero competition under your belt,” said Reid about the Indian juniors, who managed to play a few practice matches with the seniors. In contrast, as Harendra — who had the privilege of having some well-qualified support staff, including some foreign experts, to assist him — pointed out, the 2016 team had the opportunity to play a lot of practice matches that set the team in a good rhythm prior to the JWC. “If you play matches, the mindset comes to a rhythm. There is a big difference when you play your own teams and international teams. That gap was visible (in the case of India),” said Harendra.

For the love of sport: Chief Minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik, waves to the spectators during the awards ceremony.   -  BISWARANJAN ROUT

 

Notwithstanding the odds before the Kalinga test, several Indian players — including Sanjay, Sharda Nand Tiwari, Maninder Singh, Uttam Singh, Yashdeep Siwach, Vishnukant Singh, Araijeet Singh Hundal, Sudeep Chirmako and two goalkeepers Prashant Chauhan and Pawan — showed what they were capable of while playing against the best.

If Sanjay is an exceptional drag-flicker and a fine defender, then Yashdeep Siwach works as a watchful freeman defender. Sharda Nand, who was praised by German coach Valentin Altenburg for his skills and composure, is a clean operator in the back line and complements Sanjay in penalty corner conversion.

Vishnukant is a solid anchor in the midfield, with an eye and movement to create chances for his side.

READ: Junior Men's Hockey World Cup: Argentina thumps Germany for first title in 16 years

Maninder, who got injured and could not play in the semifinal against Germany and the third-place match against France, proved himself a great asset upfront. Sudeep shone with his alert strikes, while the fast-paced Uttam won appreciation for his superb dribbling skills and opportune scoring. Araijeet presented a rare combination of an attacker and a drag-flicker.

Tough ask: Graham Reid, who finished his Olympics assignment by guiding the senior Indian side to a bronze medal in Tokyo and joined the Indian juniors about a month ahead of the JWC, rightly pointed out that lack of enough exposure against foreign teams due to the pandemic was a major hurdle during the preparation phase.   -  BISWARANJAN ROUT

 

Prashant and Pawan backed each other and did their best to make some impressive saves.

These players need to grow and as several coaches, including Belgian Jeroen Baart and Altenburg, say the transition of the young ones into world-class players should also include their development as an individual.

What Argentina coach Lucas Rey, an Olympic gold medallist, said about his team after its title victory was also applicable to India.

“There must be a process (in place). There are a lot of players with a lot of quality. They need to keep on growing not only in the field but outside the field as persons. And they need to be ready to fight for a place,” said Rey.

Coming to the tournament, India began with a surprise reversal against France and recorded convincing wins over Canada and Belgium in the pool stage to qualify for the quarterfinals.

The host exhibited good discipline and tight defence to show an organised Belgium the door in the last eight but was outwitted by Germany in the semifinals. It failed to solve the French riddle again to finish frustratingly just outside the medal bracket.

Through all these matches, India did well as a unit in some areas. Its variety in penalty corner conversion was the most prominent aspect of the side.

Sanjay (the joint third-highest scorer with eight strikes including six penalty corner conversions), Sharda Nand and Araijeet provided excellent options and helped India convert 13 chances. The importance of the number goes up when one considers that India managed only five penalty corners in the last three matches and converted just one of those.

With 175 circle entries and 28 saves, India emerged as the most attacking and defensive side respectively. India’s fighting spirit was another shining aspect of its campaign. The fact that it kept pressing from disadvantaged positions and tried to close the gap in some matches must have warmed many an Indian heart.

The lessons to be learnt were many, though.

Decision-making in crunch situations, finishing moves, defending sturdily outside the circle to deny the opposition penalty corners, handling the pressure well to maintain the team structure and tempo and sticking to basics are some areas the Indian players need to work on to improve as a unit. As India captain Vivek Sagar Prasad — who joined the team late after playing his part for the Tokyo Olympics bronze medal-winning side — pointed out, the players needed to stay in the present and focus on the game.

No doubt, boys will become men while learning the ropes in international hockey.