Coming in as favorites to lift the Asian Champions Trophy 2016, it was a job well done for team India. India didn't lose a single game in their campaign to eventually strike gold! It was the perfect Diwali gift to all the fans and followers who were celebrating the ‘Festival of Light’ back home as India reclaimed their 2012 final loss to Pakistan in the same tournament.
"An India-Pakistan match is always special and this is a special victory,” - captain and the steady goalkeeper PR Sreejesh.
Throughout this campaign, India didn't lose a single game. This included mammoth victories against minnows Japan and China, close victories against both Pakistan and Malaysia and two draws against the Koreans.
What makes this victory even more special is that this was a side devoid of many first team players, either due to injuries and rest after the hectic 2016 Rio Olympics earlier this year. To add to that, Rupinder Pal Singh was not only the tournament's highest goal scorer with 11 goals but also the player of the tournament.
Closing them down
The team has shown tremendous grit, determination, and valor in converting close encounters into victories. They drew against South Korea not only in the group phase but also in the semi-finals, winning the match courtesy the last ditch heroics of PR Sreejesh in the penalty shootouts.
"Scoring the winning goal against Pakistan is a totally different feeling. It feels great. The coach and the physio had told me I’d score. I told the physio (Shrikant Iyengar) I’d celebrate with him if that came true. I kept my word.” - forward Nikkin Thimmaiah on his winning goal in the final against Pakistan.
In all the matches, there was a solid approach and intent to win. Be it holding the opposition at bay for the final few minutes, or scoring goals when needed. Even against Pakistan, they started strongly in both their encounters (league match and final), lost some ground in the second half but recovered to hit back strongly and eventually seal the result in their favor.
This has been a welcome change to see as India have always been nervous in the final 10 minutes of the game and always leaky in defense, not holding their calm and instead, conceding last ditch goals.
“For the Indian players, there was no option other than winning the title here. We went in as the favorites and were the target of other teams, who faced no such pressure.” – Oltmans.
All this looked a distant dream couple of years back when the Dutch Paul Van Ass was sacked as the coach and the Australian Roelant Oltmans, then the high-performance director instated in his place. Be it rotating the squad and its captains on match days, flexibility in style of play and multiple roles for players which has all but brought a new dimension to Indian hockey. The players have surely become more skillful to adapt to newer challenges, fit and athletic to track back and are ready to run the length of the field.
There is more consistency and organisation in how things are done in Indian hockey now. It also speaks volume of the progress the players have made under his guidance, and the nominations of PR Sreejesh and Harmanpreet Singh as the best goalkeeper and rising player of the year are testimony to this fact.
But, Oltmans realizes that this is just a start and has set larger goals for the team to achieve. On quote.
“I’m really proud that the team showed its mental strength in the last quarter to clinch victory after we conceded two goals and allowed the opposition to come back into the contest. For India’s hockey fans this is a major title win, but we have to go on and win bigger global events.” – Oltmans.
The Hockey India federation has duly rewarded his efforts with a contract extension till 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Lastly, in case you missed this sweet victory, you can watch all the highlights in the FIH Hockey World Episode 13 featuring India’s triumphant campaigns at the Men’s & Women’s ACT2016 here:
Watch this space for more on India's final encounter of the year in the four-nation tournament in Australia!