India men's Olympic hockey bronze: Replacing individual brilliance with collective efficiency

In my view, two important decisions by India saw a turnaround in their fortunes at Tokyo. One was a tactical change and the other was a rotation in personnel.

Mumbai 22/07/16: Former hockey player M M Somaya speaking at the golden jubilee celebration of Sports Journalists Association, in Mumbai. Photo: Vivek Bendre   -  th

Dribble, dodge and razzle-dazzle were key characteristics of earlier Indian hockey teams. Naturally, connoisseurs seemed far from impressed with our team’s start at Tokyo. A victory over New Zealand had bagged three points and moments to savour. ‘Where is the flair and panache of earlier teams?’ asked the diehard. And when India was taken to the cleaners in the second match against Australia, their guns were trained at the lack of creativity and attractiveness in play. As things panned out this Indian team certainly showcased a different brand of play. They may have been less flamboyant but a lot more effective.

In my view two important decisions by India saw a turnaround in their fortunes at Tokyo. One was a tactical change and the other was a rotation in personnel. Firstly, from playing a one-paced game, India resorted to a more measured approach. Manpreet, Hardik and Vivek Prasad in the midfield began to regulate the flow of play. They were assertive in attack only when the opportunity presented itself. The trio, along with Nilkant Sharma, Amit Rohidas and Sumeet Kumar, made transitions into the rival area at breakneck pace. Their transitions back to defence, too, were lightning quick. In periods of play when counter-attacking at pace was not feasible, India resorted to a controlled build up in attack. The gap between the defence and attack remained minimal, giving lesser space for oppositions to exploit. India seemed just as comfortable soaking up pressure for long spells by ensuring vulnerable areas were adequately protected. A defence that appeared beleaguered against Australia assumed an air of confidence. Harmanpreet and Rupinderpal had already been lethal with their penalty-corner conversions. Gradually their defensive play improved and, with the dependable Surender Kumar in tow, the Indian defence became more consistent with their shape and structure.

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The second mid-tournament decision involved personnel. Varun Kumar’s introduction ahead of Birendra Lakra provided greater agility and depth in defence. By the time the last pool match was played, the frontline also looked incisive. Here again the promotion of Simranjit Singh ahead of Lalit Upadhyay provided the spark for Gurjant, Dilpreet, Mandeep and Samsher to find their bearings. Field goals that were hard to come by earlier began to flow with regularity. The inclusion of Varun and Simranjit midway through the tournament was the second important decision that pushed the India graph northwards.

Great Britain as a quarterfinal opponent seemed the easiest of the options from Pool B. However they were not going to be easy meat. They had defeated India in crunch matches in the past. This time around, too, they had more possession, more circle entries and more tries than India. Yet, the two-goal margin of victory emphasised the effectiveness of the new Team India. Down to 10 men in the last few minutes, a fantastic solo run by Hardik cracked the British defence wide open. His tenacity to pounce on the rebound off his own try and slot home was a testimony to fitness levels and fearlessness. The mental barriers while playing crunch matches had crumbled and the gates to a medal match were finally open. Indian fans were more accepting of this new Indian team and their contemporary style of play.

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After a superb Q1 & Q2 in the semis against Belgium, India slackened in Q3 but was still playing toe to toe with the World Cup champions. When Manpreet saw Green it was a signal for the marauding Belgians to move into top gear. Aided by an Indian defence that would not step up and meet the opposition outside the danger area, the Belgians weaved their magic. An avalanche of PCs laid us low with Alexander Hendrix striking with impunity. ‘Why don’t we protect our legs inside the circle?’ enquired my brother and for a change he had a point. Probably on the day the Belgians’ sublime stick skills and enterprise exposed this serious chink in the Indian armour.

India’s best was saved for the bronze-medal match where a blitz of four goals in eight minutes overturned a 1-3 deficit and put us in command. Braving a torrential attack by Germany in the end, India held on for a historic win. Sreejesh lived up to his reputation as ‘The Wall’ aided in fair measure by the Kamakazi rushing of Amit Rohidas during the PC defence. The Indian team had, at long last, shown the tenacity and ‘will to win’ when it mattered the most.

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Belgium and Australia still seem to have the measure of the rest of the field. Van Doren in defence is probably the best all-round player in world hockey today. Antoine Kina and Thomas Briels are other star performers for Belgium. Goalkeeper Vincent Vanasch seemed invincible in the shoot-out to clinch gold. For Australia, Blake Govers was a terror in the striking circle. Aran Zalewski marshalled the centre of the field brilliantly. Jacob Whetton and Lachlan Sharp posed threats to all teams. Jeremy Hayward showed what a menace he could be with his drag flicks.

Coach Graham Reid has done a wonderful job and inculcated a winning mentality in the team. India, under Reid, has shown remarkable improvement. They are adept at playing the ‘full press’ more frequently against top teams thereby taking the attack to the other camp. The fitness levels of the team have been raised significantly. Individual brilliance has been replaced by collective efficiency. A dual threat through field goals and PCs makes opponents wary. Most importantly, India is winning more matches instead of winning only hearts.

After the celebrations die down Reid’s next challenge is to bridge the gap between India and the top two finishers. Here Kiwi Shane McLeod who coached the Belgians to gold and Colin Batch who coached Australia have laid down the marker. India has given much joy and revived the emotional connect with the masses. There is the last frontier yet to be conquered. As the Indian hockey would say Picture abhi baaki hai mere dost.