India Men's Hockey - The rise of the dark horses!
Indian men’s hockey team made a maiden appearance in the final of the 36th FIH Champions Trophy Hockey held at London, UK against old nemesis – the formidable Australia. India eventually lost out in the penalty shootout, as they recorded another riveting chapter in the annals of India’s illustrious hockey history and more so in the last decade.
Playing their hearts out, this gritty and valorous display by the team has shown how the team has improved in the last year from the bronze medal against the Dutch in the Hero Hockey World League 2015 to this current upgrade to silver.
India in this Champions Trophy has all been about young players, playing fearless hockey, coming back when almost down and giving their all till the very end. It would have been the perfect icing on the cake, had they defeated the mighty Aussies thereby preventing them from clinching the title for a record 14th time.
They played out of their skins, not only restricting the Aussies but also creating chances in a high tempo match, deserving to be the finale of the showpiece event. It was Australia’s worst performance in many years, with many disciplinary cards issued on the field and at a time they were reduced to 9 men.
As the final hooter went, Australia was more relieved due to the relentless barrage of attacks they faced in the match but Indian players on the other hand sunk to their knees having missed the chance to bring back the much-coveted trophy home for the first time.
It showed how much this finale meant to the boys and the momentum shifted in the shootouts as Australia finally sensed a chance and India on the other hand, were still reeling on the missed chances and were a tad unprepared or drained off, both physically and mentally and not in the right frame to approach it.
Nevertheless, the youngsters rose to the challenge and these performances should help us prepare and plan better for the Rio Olympics.
A look back on how the tournament panned out for India, how the players fared and what were the positives
Harmanpreet Singh, fast-tracked into the team with splendid performances at the junior level and then in the Silver Medal winning Sultan Azlan Shah Cup team, has given India another alternative for penalty corners with his ace drag flicks.
More so, he is not just steady in defense but also made probing runs in the opposition circle. One has lost count of the number of times the commentators have used the phrase “cool as a cucumber” to describe his calmness and composure in handling tricky situations. His penalty in the shootout of the final was equally sublime and he ended up bagging the Hero HCT2016 Junior Player of the Tournament award.
Surender Kumar looks like a younger version of Dilip Tirkey, dealing with balls in the circle with so much ease. Together with Harmanpreet, this pair has been rock solid in defense in the absence of talismanic defenders - Rupinder Singh and Birendra Lakra.
Kothajit Singh, the unsung hero of the Indian team did all the tracking, intercepting and winning those loose ball, occasionally shifting gears to join the team in attack from the flanks.
Devendra Walmiki has had a wonderful last year and a half and some of his through balls are of supreme quality and a delight to watch. And to top that, his goal at the top of the net against Belgium was top notch!
Mandeep Singh - a la Deepak Thakur style poacher has led the attacking front line with Talwinder Singh, ably supporting him. Although he has missed a few chances in the initial games but cometh the hour, he has scored those important goals. In fact, he was the leading goal scorer for India.
The fluidity with which SV Sunil has attacked and the speed at which he makes those darting runs down the flanks, has all but made those counter-attacks look so easy!
Check one such counter attack by the Indians, SV Sunil combining with Akashdeep against the Koreans, which teared their defense and finally broke the deadlock in the 3rd quarter of the game.
PR Sreejesh, the stand-in captain has single-handedly rescued the team and kept the team right in the match with his outstanding saves. He was nutmegged and conceded a couple of goals in between his legs against Belgium but that was just an off day. There are so many saves from him that it would be unfair to highlight just one of them.
A dedicated article on just the series of saves would be more apt. Especially he thwarted four back to back penalty corner attempts in the first quarter of the finale.
With the least number of penalty corners out of all teams in the tournament, India relied more on field goals this tournament. The team put up a phenomenal effort right throughout the tournament without the likes of captain and midfield maestro Sardara Singh, the defensive wall of Rupinder Singh and Birendra Lakra and no Ramandeep Singh in the forward line.
It was interesting to see coach Roelant Oltmans giving the captain’s armband to a new player every game, so that every player shoulders responsibility. This grooming process will develop leaders out of players and bare ominous signs for the near future.
Yes, we can proudly say that we have a strong team now which other teams would be wary off and will come up with plans during the Rio Olympics 2016. But there are some missing pieces or links in getting the best out of this team and there are definitely areas of improvement that need to be urgently looked upon.
The silver medal is a testament to this fact. With closing games like the first game against Germany where the Germans came back from 1-3 down to draw the match or scoring the all important goal in the finale, are some of the issues that need to be addressed still.
Team India is now a strong contender to grab gold in the upcoming Rio Olympics 2016 for the diehard patriots but perhaps dark horses for the purists, as on their day they can beat any given team. With the Rio team selection on 5th of July, it would then be a good mix of experience and young guns trying to prove a point and give their best.
Till then we all eagerly wait to see this livewire team in action!