Indian Men's Hockey Team: Can they again become the best team in the world?
Indian Men's Hockey team had a glorious past. They were the best team in the world till the 1960s. India has won as many as 8 Olympic Gold Medals in Men's Hockey, a feat which remains unmatched, to date.
But with the rise of European nations like Germany, England, Netherlands, Spain and Belgium, India's dominance in World hockey, slowly but surely declined.
They started to consistently lose to these teams and finish outside the medals bracket in Olympics and World Cups.
What led to India's Decline
The change of playing surface from grass to astroturf and the advent of new skills like drag flicking from penalty corners did not help India's cause.
These changes completely altered the dynamics of the game. Success in hockey became more dependent on speed and penalty corner conversion than on skilful dribbling, which was India's strength.
India took more time to adapt to these changes, compared to the other hockey nations. As a result, their performance dipped even more.
After the gold medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the Indian hockey team has not won any major International Hockey Event in the next 35 odd years.
The lowest phase of Indian Hockey came in 2008, when India failed to cross the qualification rounds of the Olympics, for the first time.
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 were required. A focused youth development program was also the need of the hour.
The federation understood that foreign coaches had to brought in, 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, where some of the best players of 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.
Start of Revival and Present State of Indian Hockey
In 2016, India won the Junior World Cup, beating the best teams of the world. This win had a very positive impact on Indian hockey. It provided a talented bunch of players, who knew how to win.
India now had a very good pool of young and skilful players, who knew how to play modern hockey. Penalty corner conversion had been India's single biggest problem in the 1990s and the early part of the 21st century. But now there were 3-4 world class drag-flickers in the team, viz Sandeep Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh, Harmanpreet Singh and V Raghunath, who were able to consistently convert the penalty corners into goals.
Moreover, there was a very solid midfield and defence, with great players like Sardar Singh and Manpreet Singh coming up.
The forward line of India also became stronger with the induction of young players like Akashdeep, Sunil and Ramandeep. They were able to score field goals and also earn penalty corners during circle penetrations.
With good goalkeepers like Sreejesh and Akash Tikka coming up, India suddenly started looking like a formidable side, with good players at all positions.
However, their results are not consistent. They have a very good match one day, and the very next day, they look lacklustre. Moreover, India has the bad habit of losing important matches, inspite of playing good hockey, by conceding goals in the very last minute.
However, with experience, the team is becoming mentally stronger. This showed when India played exceptionally well in the 2018 Champions Trophy and ended up in the runners-up position, ahead of top teams like Argentina, Belgium, Netherlands and Pakistan.
The steadily improving performance of the Indian team is also getting reflected in their World Ranking.
India has now climbed up to the 5th spot in the world.
In the recently concluded Asian Games in Jakarta, India played brilliant hockey in the early stages of the tournament. However, in the semifinals, they suffered a shock defeat in the hands of the Malaysian team and hence could not win the gold medal.
With the World Cup in Bhubaneshwar coming up later in the year, they need to pull up their socks and be more consistent.
With home advantage in their favour, If India plays good hockey, then they can surely dream of becoming a World Champion, again.