India breaks into Top five once again: What have they done right?
FIH released the World rankings for Men’s hockey team after the recently concluded 37th edition of Champions Trophy in Breda, Netherlands. The Indian Men’s hockey team has reached their highest ever World ranking (fifth) in 14 years. Not so long ago, India had reached World No.5 ranking after the completion of Champions trophy in 2016, where they finished runners-up after losing to Australia in a tense shoot-out. But that high was short-lived as they were pushed to sixth place by Belgium after their spirited performance in the Rio Olympics 2016.
However, India has once again entered the Top five and here’s a look at the things that India has done right to achieve this feat.
P.R. Sreejesh’s Form
It is no doubt that a major reason for India’s surge in world ranking is Sreejesh’s unbelievable form. He has saved India from defeat on numerous occasions making unbelievable and quick reflex saves during field play and Penalty corners.
Right from the two crucial saves during the Penalty shootout in 2014 Asian Games finals to saving seven Penalty corners during Champions trophy match against Belgium, Sreejesh’s form has been tremendous.
Rightly so, he was awarded the “Best Goalkeeper Award” in the recently concluded Champions trophy.
He is always on the defender’s ears shouting out instructions to his defenders. Barring an off day on the Champions trophy finals, he has had a wonderful run for the past four years.
A coach who knows his players very well
Indian hockey is infamous for chopping and changing coaches. From Michael Nobbs to Terry Walsh to Paul Van Ass to Roelant Oltmans to Sjoerd Marijne to present Harendra Singh, Hockey India has been sacking and appointing a new coach for the past five years.
Harendra Singh’s first assignment was the Champions trophy after he took over from Marijne. Looking at the results and performance, one has to say that he has done a commendable job.
Harendra Singh is not new to the job as he was also the coach of Indian men’s junior hockey team that won the Junior Hockey World Cup in 2016.
He is a coach that knows the pulse of the players. Having an Indian coach has helped the players as there are no language barriers and the players too feel comfortable in discussing ideas and strategies.
Can he replicate the success he had with the junior team on to the Senior team? Only time will tell. If his recent success in Champions trophy is anything to go by, then we can expect a lot from the team.
Over the past few years, the defensive structure was the Achilles heel for the Indian team. Conceding late goals due to lack of proper defense structure was the norm. Though this issue hasn’t yet been fully resolved, there is a gradual improvement in Indian defense. Basic things such as man-marking and blocking have improved significantly, and it was on display at the Champions trophy 2018. The defense now knows how to clear the ball from their D and keep the opponent’s attackers at bay.
The awareness during a crunch game can be the fine line between winning and losing. An area that the Indian team has certainly improved in the last couple of years is their awareness of the game situation. Not so long ago, during the Bronze medal play-off against the Netherlands at Raipur, India found themselves leading 5-3 with just five minutes to final hooter.
However, sloppy defending saw them conceding a goal to make the scoreline 5-4 with still two minutes to play. The most obvious thing to ensure a victory was to keep possession and run down the clock without taking any risks.
But it wasn't to be as Akashdeep Singh tried to be a bit too ambitious and had a shot at goal. This resulted in a turn over of possession and helped the Netherlands equalize 5-5 and the match which should have ended in regulation time was dragged to a shoot-out. Things have changed for good as the Indian team now is better at closing out games.
Games against Argentina in Rio Olympics and Champions trophy match against the Netherlands are prime examples. In the former, India was able to successfully run down the clock when they were leading by a goal and thus winning a crucial encounter.
In the match against the Netherlands, all India needed was a draw to ensure a spot in the finals. A disallowed goal meant that the Netherlands still had to score a goal to go to the finals as the score was locked 1-1.
India defended waves of attack from the Netherlands and once they got the possession, they were smart enough to keep possession in the opponent half and run down the clock.
Times have changed and Indian hockey team certainly looks a formidable side who can beat even the best teams on a given day. They certainly are in the right direction and who knows, they might crack into the Top three very soon!