Stretched. Tried and tested at every step. Handed a draw against World No. 16 Korea in the opening round-robin game. Drubbed by the 17th-ranked Japan in the all-crucial semi-finals. World No. 18 Pakistan almost ran away with the match before India struck two late goals to finish third. This was the story of the Olympic bronze medalists India at the Asian Champions Trophy hockey, in what was their first assignment after the stupendous feat at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Make no mistake. The results at the five-nation continental tournament, that featured teams all ranked at least 13 rungs below India, does not reflect the Men in Blue’s true prowess and standing in world hockey. However, at a time when the Olympic medallists need to build on their highly-successful 2021, their below-par performance has brought forth plenty of questions.
In eight months from now, India will compete in the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games, followed by the Hangzhou Asian Games, a direct qualification event for the 2024 Paris Games. And if the current results are anything to go by, India surely have a lot of ironing out to do.
Testing the Bench Strength
Following the high at Tokyo, it was imperative for India to test their bench strength and field the ‘other 18’ from the core group of 33, to prepare for the next Olympic cycle leading up to Paris.
The team travelled to Dhaka with eight players from the Tokyo team, while allowing others, and rightly so, to get some much-needed match practice and international exposure. Goalkeepers Krishan Pathak and Suraj Karkera, in particular, required proper time on the pitch, as did several others who filled in the spots for their senior pros.
On paper, it should have been easy for India, given the massive gulf between them and their opponents, but then the game is never played on paper. And this was perhaps India’s biggest lesson from the five-nation event that saw Korea defeat Japan in the final.
In terms of experience and exposure, India were still miles ahead of the rest. Barring Olympic hosts and 2018 Asian Games winners Japan, Korea and Pakistan arrived in Dhaka with almost no or very little international exposure over the last two years. Pakistan, in fact, have missed out on two Olympic Games in a row and are in a financial crunch that even forced them to pull out of the competitive Pro League. The team hired former Japan coach and Dutchman, Siegfried Aikman, just days before the tournament, in a bid to resurrect the sport. If anything, the team gave a surprisingly good display, given their recent past. Hosts Bangladesh are not even a seeded team in the FIH world rankings.
Interestingly, unlike the nine debutants in the Japan side, who ran India amok in the semis, India’s ‘bench strength’ had a collective experience of 207 International games between them. Not to mention the seniors from the Tokyo bronze medal winning squad.
But it did not translate on the pitch. To be fair, the youngsters gave a good account of themselves with a few of them managing to make their presence felt, especially goalkeepers Pathak and Karkera in the absence of the towering Sreejesh PR. Comeback man Akashdeep Singh once again showed his reliability, while Shilanand Lakra, Dipsan Tirkey and Gursahibjit Singh too did well on occasions.
However, the collective effort was found lacking. It was the team’s inability to keep their heads calm under pressure and the failure to switch to Plan B when pressed hard, something India have done in the past on more occasions than one. Their inexperience and lack of understanding among each other was too obvious but given the opposition, India were expected to come through.
Shock Loss to Japan in Semis: No Answers Enough
Skipper Manpreet Singh, who labelled India’s effort as “lazy” after the shock loss to Japan in the semis, was partially correct.
Just a day ago, much like the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games group match that saw them beat Japan 8-0, India had walloped Japan 6-0 in the ACT round-robin match with utmost ease. The match, however, was played at a stage when both teams were already through to the semi-finals, with nothing at stake.
If the result in the round-robin stage was anything to go by, it should have been a cakewalk for India. But what followed was a mayhem.
History tells us that there is almost always a massive difference in the results of pool stage matches vis-a-vis a knockout game, where teams switch gears and come out many notches higher. And this is where the young Indian team fell mightily short.
Japan came out with a strong plan, and an even stronger execution, on the day that it actually mattered. They blocked out India’s go-to-method of scoring through penalty corners keeping the team under close check, and also made sure that the midfield was tightly marked, cutting the supply at the top for India to make a breakthrough. On the other end, their forwards pressed ahead and scored at will, slicing through the inexperienced Indian defence.
Thrown off by Japan’s fast pace and change of tactics from the previous game, India threw in the towel. Wilting under pressure, India needed to slow down the pace of the game and deploy smarter tactics, but instead, they became error prone and panicked. The game underlined what largely went wrong with India at the Asian Champions Trophy, and exactly what they need to work upon going forward.
The individual standout performances notwithstanding, coach Graham Reid needs to ensure that the core group gets enough match practice, is able to turn to Plan B, avoids complacency and learns to step up when it really matters, i.e., the knockouts.
Picking up cards at regular intervals has been another headache for India, and in Dhaka, it went up manifold. In the third-place playoff against Pakistan, India played out the last six minutes with nine men, with both Hardik Singh and Sumit Kumar relegated to the bench with yellow cards. Pakistan came close to equalising before India wrapped up the match, 4-3.
2022: A Year of Reckoning
The not-so-encouraging results at the Asian Champions Trophy are not a true reflection of what India is capable of. They are the Asian powerhouse and are deserving holders of the World No. 3 rank that they have earned and maintained after years of sustained hard work, planning, and relentless effort. However, there is still a lot more to be done.
For a team that rekindled hopes of a hockey resurgence in India, the Asian Champions Trophy has served as a timely and necessary wake-up call. As India heads into 2022, where the results at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games would largely determine the road ahead, India would need to get their act together if they are to build on the legacy of the Tokyo medal.
Graham Reid’s men would do well to remember that great teams are not just made of one superlative performance, but are known for their consistent results, irrespective of opponents, conditions or pool of players.
Australia have been the greatest example of it. The Kookaburras’ “win only mindset”, be it any opposition or playing conditions, makes them a dominant force in the world hockey and comes on the back of impeccable planning, a strong bench strength, top results and a winning mentality.
And if World No. 3 India are to bridge the “significant gap” that still exists between them and the top-two ranked Australia and Belgium, they would have to make winning a habit.
It does not matter whether the stage is the Olympics or the Asian Champions Trophy.
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