'Two-and-a-half minutes that ruined the positives and pained the nation' - Harendra Singh attributes Asiad loss to a tactical failure
On the eve of the Champions Trophy, Harendra Singh and Sreejesh were more focussed on the Asian Games which were still a couple of months away at the time.
"The Champions Trophy will give us some much-needed exposure against the best teams in the world. We will learn from the mistakes we commit there which will help us stand atop the podium in Jakarta," were the emphatic words of the coach which were echoed by the captain as well.
From the heights of glory to the depths of despair
Far from committing mistakes, the Indians mesmerized the world with a heartwarming show at Breda. Not much was wrong at Jakarta too - records tumbled and the goals kept coming.
The Indians had a 2-1 lead against Malaysia until the 58th minute of play and were all set to march into their second successive Asian Games final. Out of nowhere, the Malaysians stormed into the Indian circle, earned a PC, and Rahim Razie scored a goal which shellshocked the Indian players, and millions of their fans around the world.
A shootout led to sudden death, and with a sense of disbelief, the painful fact sunk in that Harendra's boys had failed to defend their title and would not earn a direct ticket to Tokyo.
Two-and-a-half fateful minutes were all it took to seemingly nullify what had perhaps been the longest dream run that the nation's hockey team has had in quite a while.
Who would know that better than the man who initiated the turnaround which allowed fans to dream big for the first time in conscious memory?
"Dhai minute jo hum chooke hain, uspe humen kaam karne ki zaroorat hai kyunki voh ek malaal hai - usse ghayal poora desh hain, aur ghayal hum bhi hai."
(We need to work on the lapses which took place in two-and-a-half minutes because that will always remain a deep regret - the country is pained by what transpired, and I am equally pained too.)
For a man whose chequered career has see-sawed between the depths of despair and the heights of glory, the reverse at Jakarta is the latest in a long series of trials and tribulations.
Yet, all those who have followed Harendra Singh's coaching career since 2005 will know one thing for certain - passion is what the man wears on his sleeve, and every single setback has only made him stronger.
Why did things go wrong - when the Indians were progressing like a well-oiled machine?
In an exclusive interaction with Sportskeeda, the Indian coach makes no secret of the fact that he and the team were devastated by the defeat but emphasizes that the quality of tournament goals was exceptional, and the focus will now be on how to improve passing and ball possession in key moments.
The expectations were not particularly high when the Indians landed at Breda armed with a new coach after a rather lackluster performance in the Commonwealth Games. A nation watched with bated breath as Sreejesh and co. took on Pakistan for the first time since Mubashar Ali's last-minute stunner which had left Indian fans dazed and dumbfounded.
Slowly but surely, Harendra's boys overcame the initial Pakistani resistance and Oltmans' side caved in as the pressure built up in the final quarter. Many wondered if the Indians had enough steam left to challenge Olympic champions Argentina the very next day.
Like a team inspired, the Indians refused to relent, and although Gonzalo Peillat found the mark once, it was not enough to stop Harendra's chargers from earning full points. Belgium and the Netherlands too scored just once but were unable to break down the Indian defence a second time and both had to settle for a hard-fought draw.
In the finals also, the Indians were undeniably the better side in spite of losing the gold to Australia and appeared to be even more determined as they sunk their opponents in the pool matches at Jakarta by margins that seemed a trifle unreal.
"Lalit's aerial strike against South Korea good enough to be a World Top-Ten goal"
Sixty shots on goal in sixty minutes is not a statistic one sees too often but that is precisely what the Indians achieved, at Jakarta, as they pummelled Hong Kong 26-0 and demolished an 86-year-old record in the process.
It wasn't just the quantity of goals which was stupefying but the quality as well. Two of the best goals of the tournament came against the South Koreans when Akashdeep Singh stopped the ball in the circle, shifted and oscillated like on a pivot, and delivered a stinging tomahawk quite effortlessly like he was practicing in his backyard.
Akashdeep's reverse in the 55th minute of play resulted in India's fifth goal which nailed the match for Harendra Singh's team but Lalit Upadhyaya's goal was rated by his coach as being one of the very best.
A minute after the first quarter, Simranjeet Singh delivered a long aerial ball which made its way into the Korean circle. Fellow striker Lalit Upadhyaya read the pass perfectly, covered a lot of ground, and used a double-handed flat stick in the air to connect to the ball and tap it in past the hapless Korean goalie.
The Indian coach also heaped praise on his boys for advancing effectively from either flank and from in between the flanks too.
"The boys attacked from the left, right, and center while a lot of the teams relied on forays that were more unilateral. The quality of the goals was exceptional too. Lalit's goal off Simranjeet's assist was exceptional and shows the kind of vision he possesses."
"Loss to Malaysia was the result of a tactical shortcoming"
The Indian coach had mentioned in a previous interview to Sportskeeda that whenever the team loses, he replays the match to assess the reasons for the defeat, and accordingly decides on appropriate remedial measures to be taken. When asked if the lapses against Malaysia required tactical, technical, or psychological remedies, the Indian coach's response was lightning quick.
"The loss to Malaysia was a result of a tactical shortcoming. Tactics and strategy are completely different. A strategy is a role that the team needs to play consistently but tactics can change by the minute. Tactics need to be altered based on the manner in which the opposing team approaches the game."
"In this particular instance, we should have kept possession and played the clock down rather than trying to clear the ball out of play or attempt to score another goal. It would have been best to play passes using the forehand in such a scenario."
"Peripheral vision and scanning needs to improve to enable efficient passing"
Optimum use of passes among the best available players is the key in crunch situations feels the Indian coach.
"The players need to use the best possible pass among the many options available instead of resorting to the worst possible option which would give away possession and spell danger for the team."
"We need to work more on improving our peripheral vision and scanning on the pitch which will enable a player to make the judgment as to who he should pass the ball to in a particular situation. Unfortunately, we chose the worst possible option and had to pay the price for the same."
"PC conversion was good enough"
One more PC goal against Malaysia could have possibly sealed the deal for India in the semifinal but Harendra feels that the boys did well enough with their drag flicks overall.
"An overall conversion percentage of 35.4 % is quite good. We do, however, need to work on ensuring that we maintain a high conversion percentage against all the teams we play - ideally between 28-32%. If we had scored a few more PC goals against the better teams, the conversion rate would have soared to 40%.
The veteran coach opined that the conditions at Bhubaneswar were ideal but the players would need to get on to the pitch to see how it behaved.
"The authorities here need to be congratulated for doing an excellent job. We will get on the pitch in a day or two to see how it behaves."
It has been observed quite often that the erratic runs of the Indian team defy logic in that their performances are often inversely proportional to the levels of expectation which are pinned on them - the Champions Trophy at Breda being a prime example.
The burden of expectations has undeniably reduced following the team's inability to retain their Asian Games title. So, will the critics and sceptics be in for a surprise yet again when Harendra's chargers take the field for the World Cup?
Time will tell - but the man who won, for India, the Junior World Cup gold knows what it takes to engineer a dramatic alteration in the script as he has done so often in the past.