We have learnt so much from the tournament — Walsh

Splendid finish… the victorious Netherlands team with the trophy. The Dutchmen recovered from an early defeat to pulverise New Zealand in the final of the Hockey World League.-PICS: R.V. MOORTHY

This was the first tournament for India under Terry Walsh. Trying to get used to the Aussie’s methods, the host, without some of its key players, had the onerous task of bringing together some youngsters for the elite event, writes Y. B. Sarangi.

“Let’s not lose focus,” urged the chief coach, Terry Walsh, immediately after India settled for a rare sixth-place finish in the Hockey World League (HWL) finals in Delhi. This was the first tournament for the Indian team under Walsh, and the experience was no less dramatic for the whole squad than it was for those who witnessed the turnaround from the stands.

Trying to get used to Walsh’s methods, the Indian team, without some of its key players, had the onerous task of bringing together some youngsters for the elite event.

The host had a disappointing start to the tournament. In the league phase, against England and New Zealand, India looked like a bunch of amateurs. Whether it was the basics, tactical understanding or execution of plans, the team failed miserably and suffered ignominious defeats.

However, India came back with renewed vigour to play out a 3-3 draw against the Olympic champion, Germany, and take a 2-0 lead against the world champion, Australia, in the quarterfinals before going down 7-2.

The home side delivered the shock of the tournament when it showed far greater command over the game to beat Germany 5-4. India, however, suffered a narrow 2-1 defeat to Belgium to be placed sixth in the tournament.

For India, which normally finishes outside the top-six in high profile events, it was a huge morale-booster. Besides, the team gained some points from the event to return to the top-10 of the world rankings after a few years. India is ranked No. 8.

However, even a cursory glance at India’s performances against various teams in the HWL finals would explain why Walsh does not think that ‘two sunny days make a summer.’ The Australian was happy that the team tried to follow his advice to ‘hold back to last long’ and relied on counter-attacks. “We are trying to play to the greatest strengths we have,” said Walsh. “We have learnt so much from this tournament that we have gone to another level. We consider ourselves a team that can play now, not necessarily win… To go 55-60 minutes without a goal (against Belgium) shows that we are becoming more resilient in the back field, which is important,” he added.

Captain Sardar Singh, who has played under different foreign coaches, backed his young players. “If we play against top teams in top events, then it will enhance the confidence of our players. We have to go a long way,” he said.

Walsh is concerned about the overall improvement of the side, including fitness. Although India is set to play in the World Cup in May, the Aussie considers the Asian Games in September the real challenge. The continental Games will give the side some time to improve its skills and provide an opportunity to qualify for the Rio Olympics.

With the Commonwealth Games and the Champions Trophy also scheduled for 2014, it will be a difficult task for Walsh as far as the fitness of the players is concerned. He will have to rotate his players well in order to keep them free of injuries. The recovery from injuries of at least half-a-dozen key players will be crucial to Walsh’s plans.

Terry Walsh greets Rupinder Singh, who scored the winning goal against Germany in a play-off match in the Hockey World League. "We are trying to play to the greatest strengths we have," said India's chief coach.-

The HWL was an important event as the top sides used this as a platform to test their strengths and weaknesses in the run-up to the World Cup. Australia, which came to the tournament without some of its regular players, paid the penalty for not grabbing its chances and had to settle for the fourth place. Still, it gathered enough points to displace Germany from the world number one position.

Germany, which did not have enough outdoor training due to the winter season, could not avail the services of a few impact players. It struggled with its rhythm and ended in the seventh spot.

The Netherlands, which recovered from an early loss to put in some compact performances later, beat New Zealand comprehensively in the final to win the first edition of the FIH (International Hockey Federation) event.