Superlative to hypercritical: Indian hockey needs a reality check
An analysis of the gap in experience between a young Indian side and the best teams in the world and the need to be realistic about results
India is in the fifth position but technically, they are still in with a chance to strike gold in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. If India beat Ireland in their last encounter, their progress to the top hinges on the results of other matches.
For India to reach the final, Australia needs to beat Argentina (which is likely on current form) while England and Malaysia need to play out a draw. Given the schedule for tomorrow, if Australia beat Argentina in the first match, India will know they have a chance to go for gold and need to beat Ireland by a huge margin. Following that, India needs to hope and pray that England and Malaysia split points.
If indeed, fortune favours India, they may still reach the final. If that does happen, the press and fans alike are likely to laud the team for winning a silver medal (or a gold) post the final against Australia.
If the same does not happen and India miss a podium finish, the press and the fans will likely then deride the team, the coach, the system and the entire hockey establishment for India's "failure" in the tournament.
Harsh and irrational assessment
A lot of the Indian press (whether coincidentally or otherwise), chose to use the adjective "listless" when referring to India's loss to Australia in the Azlan Shah Cup.
Was that indeed an accurate assessment?
A scoreline of 4-2 against the world's best squad is not disastrous. Australia, who are renowned for attacking right from the outset and starting with a flurry of goals, had to wait until the 28th minute to open the scoring with the aid of a penalty stroke.
Until the 28th minute, it was not the Australians but the Indians who held sway and kept Aussie goalkeeper Andrew Charter on his toes. India were down to ten men more than once against the mighty kookaburras but still kept fighting.
A strong penalty corner flick from Varun Kumar ricocheted off the post after the ball had beaten all the Australian runners and the goalkeeper too. Fortune too did not favour the young Indian side.
In the first two quarters, Ramandeep Singh made some surging runs, combining well with Shilanand Lakra and pegging the Australians back for long periods. When, in conscious memory, have we seen an Australian team kept bogged down in deep defence? Isn't it always the other way round with the Aussie forwards traumatizing the opposition at the start?
To fully understand the gap in experience between Sardar Singh's side and Mark Knowles' world champions, let us take look at some statistics.
The following is a list (in descending order) of the number of international matches played by the most experienced members of both teams before the start of the Azlan Shah Cup.
Australian team (Top 8)
Mark Knowles (312)
Eddie Ockenden (308)
Jake Whetton (150)
Andrew Charter (143)
Aran Zalewski (132)
Daniel Beale (120)
Trent Mitton (126)
Tyler Lovell (101)
Indian Team (Top 8)
Sardar Singh (292)
SK Uthappa (135)
Ramandeep Singh (117)
Surender Kumar (75)
Talwinder Singh (63)
Amit Rohidas (41)
Varun Kumar (25)
Based on the total number of caps (for the 8 most experienced players) the averages for both teams are as follows:
Australia: 174 caps
India: 97.3 caps
India's stats have been calculated, not counting Simranjeet Singh with 2 caps, Nilam Xess with 4 caps, and goalkeeper Krishan Pathak with 4 caps. Debutantes in the tournament included Shilanand Lakra and Sumit Kumar.
Can the performance of a budding Indian unit against a full-strength world champion squad be dubbed "listless"?
The same press then used adjectives like "scintillating" a day later to describe India's victory over Malaysia. The headlines and adjectives used seemed more to do with the scoreline than to describe the quality of play. The quality of the opposition too did not seem to matter.
Rise from the ashes: Need for patience
Indian hockey was in the doldrums until a decade back. Surely, things need to put in perspective by the media and hockey fans who seem to have forgotten what the state of affairs was back then.
The 2006 World Cup saw India ending at 11th place out of 12 teams. India failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
In the World Cup in 2010, India ended in the 8th place. India managed to qualify for the 2012 Olympics but finished 12th in London.
Since then, things have only improved.
In the World Cup in 2014, India finished 9th. In the 2016 Rio Games, India made it to the quarter-finals after 36 years but lost to Belgium.
India won silver in the elite Champions Trophy in 2016, a monumental achievement, finishing ahead of Germany, Great Britain, Belgium, and South Korea. India lost to Australia in a close penalty shootout in the final. India also entered the elite top six in the world hockey rankings.
Hockey India has set its sights higher and wants further improvement. A new coach and a young team, brimming with talent, is taking on the best in the world. If they can unsettle the best of teams now, surely in a couple of years or so, the same lads can make India a world-beating unit?
India has performed creditably against Argentina, Australia, and England. A win against England would have been the desired result and penalty corner conversions are a concern, however, the defenders and forwards have shown great promise.
Surely, Indian hockey is on the right track. The need of the hour is to be patient, rational and pragmatic, and most importantly supportive of a young and fearless Team India.