Men's Hockey in India: An Overview
Indian Hockey has a glorious past. With 8 Olympic gold medals, India was the most successful hockey nation in the world, until the 1950s.
But with the rise of European nations like Germany, England, Netherlands, Spain, Belgium etc along with other teams like Korea, Australia, Pakistan, India's position as a superpower in world hockey slowly but surely declined.
They started to consistently lose to these teams and finish outside the medals bracket in Olympics and the World Cups.
Causes for the decline
The change of playing surface from grass to AstroTurf and the advent of new skills like drag flicking in penalty corners did not help India's cause.
These changes completely altered the dynamics of the game. Success in Hockey was more dependent on speed and penalty corner conversion, than on skilful dribbling, which was India's strength. As a result, the European teams like Netherlands and Germany started to dominate world hockey, as they had a very fast-paced game and were much fitter, compared to the other nations.
The other Asian hockey giant, Pakistan, were able to perform better than India, till the 90's, because of their great penalty corner specialists like Sohail Abbas, who mastered the art of scoring goals from drag flicks.
India took more time to adapt to these changes, compared to the other premier hockey nations. As a result, their performances dipped even more.
After their win in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, India failed to win any major international hockey event for the next 35 odd years.
The lowest phase of Indian Hockey came in 2012 when for the first time, India could not even qualify for the Olympics.
Steps Taken to Stop the Decline
This was like a wake-up call for the hockey fraternity in India. They finally understood that ground level changes and a focused youth development program were required. Foreign coaches were also needed along with our Indian ones, in order to expose our players to the latest developments of world hockey.
Thus with these realizations, came some positive steps. A professionally run hockey league was started in 2013, where best players from the world came and played with our Indian players.
Although this league got discontinued after 2017, it had some positive impacts.
It produced a bunch of players, who were more confident about competing and winning against the best teams in the world, because of their exposure. They also learned new skills of modern hockey, like 3D dribbling and drag flicking.
As a result of this league, India's pool of quality players increased. There were more than 1 or 2 players of international quality, in each of the positions. In this era of modern hockey, where there is rolling substitution, multiple options for a particular position are very important.
Present State of Indian Hockey
India now have a good pool of young and skillful players, who know how to play modern hockey. There are 3-4 world class drag-flickers in the team, viz. Rupinder Pal Singh, Harmanpreet Singh, V Raghunath etc, who are able to consistently convert the penalty corners into goals, which has been India's single biggest problem in the 1990s and the early part of the 21st century.
Moreover, there is a very solid midfield and a reliable defence, with players like Manpreet Singh and Harmanpreet Singh as leaders, who have the quality to control the match, against any other team in the world.
The forward line of India is also quite strong with the induction of players like Akashdeep, SV Sunil and Ramandeep. They are able to score field goals and also earn penalty corners during circle penetrations.
With very good goal keepers like Sreejesh and Akash Tikka also in the mix, the present Indian team is definitely a formidable side, with great potential.
However, their results have not been consistent. They often have a very good match one day, and the very next day they look lacklustre. Moreover, they lost important matches, in spite of playing good hockey by conceding goals in the last few minutes.
Looking at the quality of the team, it can be expected that with experience, the team will become mentally stronger and perform better in the bigger events like the Olympics and the World Cups. India has now climbed up to the 5th spot in the world rankings.
Their steady improvement in the world rankings shows that they definitely have the potential to revive their lost glory.
Only time will tell whether they can actually do it or not.