Despite below par performance, Indian hockey fans need to keep the faith

The first semifinal of FIH in Rotterdam, Rabobank World League tournament has just concluded with many surprises. Who would have thought that the champions would be Belgium? The best hope for them was to qualify for WC from here. The dramatic thriller of penalty shoot-out in the final lasted 9 tense rounds. They proved that their win against the same opposition in group opener was not a flash in the pan. They are the fastest improving side in world hockey today and surely a force to be recognized.

The Dutch, who were the title favourites at home, could only get last berth. Spain and Kiwis were the notable absentees on the podium.

But this article is concentrating on India’s performance. No doubt, with this sort of competition round the corner, it was a far cry to hope for the silverware. But we could have finished in top 3. It was the first game against Ireland where 2 points were lost (we easily could have lost all 3) after which, it was clear that hopes of making it to the semifinal were over. The Irish side produced a lot of counter attacks, to which India had no answer. Everyone knew that in remaining 2 matches, at least 4 points needed to be procured.

We could not score against Netherlands. How can you win a group game without netting the ball in? A win against New Zealand could have happened and India played their best in the second half in that game. Sreejessh even saved a penalty stroke but the Black Caps snatched a point in dying minutes.

Everyone knows that Australians love to dominate from the first minute and you win half the battle if you can contain them for the first 20 minutes. Sadly, no such lessons were learnt by Team India. In the quarter-final against them, we were behind within 2 minutes and 4-1 was the score line by 25 minutes. Indians lost all the steam and virtually surrendered after the fifth goal early in the second half.

India defeated France in first play-off, though it was visible that France has improved a lot since missing the spot for Olympics to India in Delhi the previous year. Against Spain, India came from behind and retained lead for more than half an hour. In the shoot-out, the experience and coolness of mind is the key and young players often wilt under the pressure. We could have presented a happy ending to the tournament by defeating a higher ranked team for the first time here, but destiny had something else in store.

There are a lot of troubling questions that require explanation. Is recruiting Roelant Oltmans as technical director a failed experiment? What purpose was served by it? Has it led to two seats of power in one team, with both personnel abdicating all responsibility? What is the reason for poor rate of conversion of penalty corners, despite having 3 drag flickers in the squad? Has the gamble of having so many PC-specialists worked (instead we could have strengthened our midfield)?

Danish Mujtaba was deeply missed. Akashdeep is not cut out for senior level and clearly is not the desired replacement of Gurwinder Singh Chandi. Sardara never inspired, neither as a player nor as a captain. Remember how Danish inspired the young team in Azlan Shah, specially against Pakistan? Sandeep is now a shadow of his former best. The perennial problem of giving away penalty corners to opponents far too cheaply is still unsolved. Youngsters often lose their cool. The Indian team doesn’t have any explanation in this regard and young birds must learn not to be angry birds far too easily.

There are some silver linings in the cloudy skies to take heart from. Sreejesh is really a world class keeper. The last Irish goal injured him and Indian hopes were seriously affected. India struggled, whenever he was out of field, specially against Dutch. Mandeep, the youngest chap, has a great future. He is lethal in front of the goal. The way he defeated one of the best and most experienced goalkeepers of the world, Cortes, by a scoop in playoff, proves it. He must be given more time up front.

All is not lost and India can still book ticket to WC on same turf the next year via a good showing in the Asian Championships later this year. It is achievable with a thorough and honest self analysis. Meanwhile, the fans must ‘keep the faith’.

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