Hockey India: How relevant are the numbers?
Breaking into the top six of the FIH rankings was, for long, an elusive aim. A decade ago, that might have seemed impossible. But India are now, well and truly, in the elite six. As the year begins and with the Four Nation Invitational tournament in New Zealand, let us assess if we can actually climb higher in the rankings. After all, that is the reason why Hockey India gave reins from Roelant Oltmans to Sjoerd Marijne.
So, can India go one step further? The task is daunting. But, by no means impossible. The current rankings are as follows:
The rankings are a welcome sight to all hockey lovers in India, especially those who have patiently and persistently kept their spirits up and supported the team for over two or three decades hoping for a turnaround in fortunes. Over the years, however, India's hockey fortunes have always been compared to traditional rivals Pakistan. So, it is only fitting to take a look at where Pakistan is positioned currently in the hockey world.
India, the lone Asian challenger
For years, the two hockey giants have been neck and neck in rankings and performance with Pakistan a whisker ahead more often than not. Yet, it is indeed stupefying to note that Pakistan find themselves languishing at number 13 (even below Malaysia who are at 12) on the list.
South Korea, who emerged as a hockey power winning gold in the Seoul Asian Games of 1986 and ending the monopoly of the subcontinental teams by mastering the astroturf surface with speed and stamina, also seem to have lost their way recently. Asian hockey, it seems is on a downward spiral, India being the only exception.
Notwithstanding, Pakistan's current poor ranking, their head to head record with India tells a different tale altogether. Pakistan have a better win record against India in the Olympics (4-2 wins) out of seven encounters, in the World Cup (3-2 wins) in five matches and a daunting win record (12-6) out of 18 in the elite Champions Trophy. In a total of 171 matches played between the two nations, Pakistan have won 82 times while India have won only 59 times with a massive number of 30 drawn matches.
Credit is due, in no small measure, therefore for all responsible for India's phenomenal rise, being the only Asian side in the top 10 currently. Looking down the rankings is no doubt comforting. But, how does one feel looking up the rankings, as an Indian hockey enthusiast?
The Invincible Aussies
For all those who have followed hockey over the years, there is not much need to research to recall how India has fared against the greatest of them all - the Kookaburras. Beaten by huge margins without a fight a number of times, beaten after a fightback on some occasions, and beaten by the odd goal or shootout on a few others; the victories are ever so few.
Let us now gather courage and take a look at the statistics. In the gruelling Champions Trophy, Australia have been ruthless. Playing against India a total of 15 times, Australia have won 10 times with India winning only twice. The World Cup record seems no better with Australia having beaten India six times in eight meetings, India managing just a solo win. Only in the Olympic Games, is the record a trifle more respectable with Australia winning five and India, three, of a total of 10 encounters.
A grand total of 120 matches has been played between the two sides, in which Australia dominate with an 80 - 22 win record. The gap is wide indeed but then Australia have been the dominant force for as long as one can remember and the trend continues. More recently, India can take heart from the 2016 Champions Trophy final where after a goalless draw at the end of regulation time, Australia just about managed to win the match in a penalty shootout.
Argentina and the European challenge
India have fared much better against Argentina. The head to head record is definitely in India's favor despite Argentina's higher ranking. Belgium have proven to be a huge stumbling block for India recently with several losses in important matches. In the Four Nations Invitational currently on in New Zealand, India lost to Belgium in the finals in the first leg but beat the Europeans in a league encounter in the second leg. The two will meet again in the final scheduled for later today.
With Germany and Netherlands, India have had a see-saw record with some great and momentous encounters since the 1980s. Both Germany and Netherlands have had the edge over India but by no means are they invincible. The Netherlands beat India in the Hockey World League recently while India beat a depleted German side to win bronze in the same tournament in Bhubaneshwar.
The road ahead for India will be uphill and there is not much room for error. But the truth is, past records and statistics mean little currently. For the simple reason that India have never been placed this high in the rankings in the last two decades.
This is a new team which has scaled new heights and have a new mission. The old numbers may mean nothing because Indian hockey is on the verge of making history. Indeed, the new numbers are the ones which will count and set the trend.
Hoping India beats Belgium later today, it is time to fasten the seat belts and get ready for an action-packed 2018. Hoping that Indian hockey takes off, aiming to reach the skies.