Sixth out of eight is really sad!

India coach Michael Nobbs is no novice in the use of technology. But the use of latest gadgets hasn’t translated into on-field success. After finishing sixth in the Hockey World League Round 3, India now needs to win the Asia Cup in August to qualify for the World Cup. Uthra Ganesan takes stock.

With players walking the ramp with panache, in stylish new outfits under flashing pop lights, the sending-off of the Indian hockey teams, both men and women, after the Hockey World League Round 3 was a glamorous event. Unfortunately, that was to be the only good thing about India’s campaign in the competition.

The women’s team finished seventh in the eight-team field, which was expected, while the men ended up at sixth spot, which was not.

Before departure, there were high hopes from the Indian men. Even though the team was not expected to beat the likes of Australia or Netherlands, India was expected to finish at least in the top three, thereby staying in the reckoning for World Cup qualification. Instead, India’s only win in the competition came against lowly France.

The reasons for such a dismal performance were many. Traditionally a slow starter, the format should have suited India. After three league matches each, every team had to play the quarterfinal, which meant India could get into a rhythm by then. That did not happen as India started with a surprise draw against gritty Ireland, lost to Holland and then drew again against New Zealand, before being thrashed 5-1 by Australia in the quarterfinal.

“We should have won that first game. But even after that we had our chances. The entire team deserves blame for the poor performance,” admitted captain Sardar Singh. He is right, because every player, including Sardar, was guilty of silly mistakes not expected at this level of play.

Hockey India’s High Performance Director Roelant Oltmans has tried to give a positive spin to the outing. “India played good hockey in some matches but were not consistent. I won’t say their performance was bad but there are areas where improvement is needed. India needs to play against top teams more regularly for that,” he has said. What he left unsaid was that the areas of improvement are widespread.

It was an all-round failure. With three penalty corner experts — a luxury in modern hockey — India managed to convert less than 30 per cent of its chances. Against Holland, it earned four and wasted them all. In games against Australia and Spain, the defence gifted away own goals to the opposition. Poor defence meant India let in 18 goals through the tournament.

But blaming the defence cannot be an escape route for the others. For a long time now, the team management has been over-reliant on the playmaking abilities of Sardar Singh, playing him for more than 60 minutes in every game. As a result, the captain’s performance took a hit. He was below par, committing basic errors in passing that he would not otherwise do.

“It is tough. I understand I need to take responsibility but in today’s hockey, no one can play for the entire duration. It kills you. I couldn’t run as much as I should have, I was making mistakes despite being aware of them. Fitness needs to go up but so does the use of rotations,” Sardar admitted.

Others were equally guilty. Off the ball running was pathetic, the forwards were hardly seen in strategic positions to try and get the ball in. The Indian attack was lacklustre. Even though a couple of players were inexperienced at this level, the effort itself was lacking. There was no adjustment to the on-field situation, no Plan B, no fightback. Basic trapping and passing errors meant the ball possession was measly.

It was an insipid performance from a team that boasts of a foreign coach who has been in the saddle for almost three years and a High Performance Director who is considered among the best brains in the business.

In contrast, Belgium, which won the competition defeating Australia on penalties in the final, has been a revelation. Belgium’s rising graph was evident way back in 2007, when it upset Germany in the EuroHockey Nations Championship and qualified for the 2008 Olympics. And the coming of Dutchman Marc Lammers as coach has seen the team growing in strength. Defeating Australia twice in a competition is no child’s play. Lammers has some reputation as a coach. Despite playing only five times for the Dutch national team, the 44-year-old is regarded with respect. He managed to take the then World No. 20 Spain to the top-four at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. For eight years, he helmed the Dutch women’s team, winning silver at the 2004 Olympics and gold four years later, claiming the World Cup and the Champions Trophy in between.

Since taking charge of Belgium, he has not allowed the team to fall out of the top-10 in world rankings. Techno-savvy and easy to talk to, Lammers is easily the younger version of the legendary Ric Charlesworth.

India coach Michael Nobbs is no novice in the use of technology either. But the use of latest gadgets hasn’t translated into on-field success. India now needs to win the Asia Cup in August to qualify for the World Cup. The team has not done well in such pressure situations before. One hopes for a new beginning this time around. It is a desperate situation, where the winner takes all.