Looking at the bigger picture

It was India’s sixth third-place finish in the competition that started in 1983. Having won five titles and a runner-up spot during the period, India is the second most successful team in the Azlan Shah Cup, behind Australia. However, more than the result, it was India’s on-field performance and the improvements it showed through the tournament that proved heartening, writes Uthra Ganesan.

Soon after he took charge of the Indian men’s hockey team in March, Paul van Ass said that his target was not to go for a medal every time India played, but to look at the bigger picture and concentrate on the growth of the team. Following India’s bronze medal-winning performance at the Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia recently, the Dutch coach is not only pleasantly surprised but also convinced that the Indian team is on the right track.

It was India’s sixth third-place finish in the competition that started in 1983. Having won five titles and a runner-up spot during the period, India is the second most successful team in the Azlan Shah Cup, behind Australia. However, more than the result, it was India’s on-field performance and the improvements it showed through the tournament that proved heartening.

“I know results are important, but they are only part of the process. My main target would be to continue the growth curve. I would be looking to make the chain stronger — the defence and the counter-attacks — but the most important concern would be to ensure the players remain cool under pressure,” van Ass had said soon after taking the reins of the team.

India started its campaign in the Azlan Shah Cup with a draw against Korea, but then the team faltered against New Zealand and Malaysia, losing control of the proceedings in the final five minutes. The defeats led to a lot of criticism back home — the players were blamed for everything, from losing focus to running out of steam towards the end.

India responded with a hard-fought victory against Canada, and then stunned World champion Australia 4-2, riding on a hat-trick from Nikkin Thimmaiah, before holding its nerves in the shootout against Korea to win the bronze medal. Even though there are areas that still need to improve, van Ass’s emphasis on staying calm under pressure seems to be working with the Indian team.

“There were ups and downs, and we accepted our mistakes. The coach did not put any pressure on us and handled our defeats with a cool head. He made sure we improved with every match,” Thimmaiah said on returning home from Malaysia.

To be fair, the event was more a chance for the new coach to know and assess his wards in competition play than a test of his abilities. Since van Ass has not spent much time with the team, he, understandably, did not make many changes to the structure that is already in place. The next big tournament, the World League semifinals in June, would be the main test for van Ass.

Through the Azlan Shah Cup, the Indian team proved its ability to bounce back from defeats. Van Ass, while accepting the significance of the outcome, also insisted that irrespective of the results, the team’s performance in the first two games was satisfactory.

Being the only side so far to have qualified for the Rio Olympics, India has the advantage of trying and testing its combinations in big and small tournaments. However, certain issues remain that need to be addressed urgently.

P. R. Sreejesh, no doubt, is a world-class goalkeeper, but he needs to be handled properly.

The players being groomed as his backup, Harjot Singh and Sushant Tirkey, hardly get playing time during competitions. Playing non-stop for more than a year now, Sreejesh needs to be rested and used carefully to avoid a burnout or, worse, an injury ahead of the Olympics.

India’s defence remains weak, and van Ass has marked it out as one of his key areas of concern. He agreed India needs to ensure that it does not slack until the final whistle, but was quick to add that no one person can be held responsible. “It is a total effort from the entire unit; we need to get our positions better,” he said.

There is also the need to work on the team’s finishing. The forward line is the youngest in the team, and despite being in the right positions, the players fail to convert opportunities into goals. And despite having two supremely talented penalty corner experts on the field at any given time, India’s conversion rate is abysmally low.

In terms of participation of top-ranked teams, the Azlan Shah Cup ranks quite high. Traditionally being the first international tournament in a calendar year, the event has the advantage of seeing most of the Asian and Oceania teams participating. However, the tournament is often considered a testing ground for bigger challenges ahead. But that is not to say that the participating nations send their second-string teams or the importance of India’s bronze medal-winning performance must be ignored. With at least one major ranking tournament scheduled every year, the Azlan Shah Cup is an ideal ground to check the match-fitness of the experienced seniors and the talent and temperament of the juniors. Most sides in the tournament, including India, had a fair mix of both.

Youngsters such as Jasjit Singh Kular, Mandeep Singh and Chinglensana impressed van Ass with their maturity, while the seniors improved as the tournament progressed.

“I watch this team and find them very skilful; they proved it against Australia. This is a very capable team. They can give a tough time to any opponent on a given day,” van Ass said.