The two requirements for cleaning hockey are – honesty and transparency. Somewhere in this whole set-up, the Indian hockey team, and I am counting the players, coaches and the federation, someone is not being truthful. In the last two decades, there have been teams that have performed miserably. But nowhere like this bunch. Even if the national team would have played at sixty percent, we would have drawn with Holland (3-3), beaten Korea and Belgium. This is my honest assessment about this team.
We saw this team winning the Asian Champions Trophy in Ordos, China and then reaching the final of the Champions Challenger. Later, they won the Olympic qualifying tournament in Delhi. Agreed, the quality wasn’t top class. But they did beat Korea and Pakistan in the Asian Champions. Nobody expected India to reach the semi-finals. If some did, then they are hockey illiterate. At best, they should have won two matches in the Pool, drawing one and losing two. We are not on the same level as Holland and Germany. We are 10th in the world and now we are playing for 11th/12th.
In at least three of the matches, the team couldn’t play the first half energetically. They seemed out of shape and strangely looked disoriented. If they entered the striking circle, they looked like kids who stumbled into the living room where adults were having a chat. Giving away ball possession became second nature. For players like Shivendra Singh and Tushar Khandekar, this tournament became a lesson that playing for India requires a different mindset. But what was most disturbing was the fact that faced with adversity, the team didn’t respond. It actually went downhill. There are media reports asking for the coaches to be spared. But how can you not blame the teachers?
The Azlan Shah syndrome doesn’t work in two tournaments – The World Cup and the Olympics. At the Azlan Shah, India, a majority of the time plays its first team. If the Europeans decide to play in Malaysia, they invariably bring their test squads. Even Australia brings in at least six to seven players who are tested against India’s best. So if we draw or beat the Aussies, it’s not the right result. At the Azlan Shah, coming back into a match against a top team is relatively easy. They are trying different combinations and regard that tournament as a test ground. India, on the other hand is trying to gain brownie points by winning the Azlan Shah. Many a time in the past, after winning the Azlan Shah, Indian coaches have said, “We are ready for the top teams.” Nothing can be further from the truth.
In India, winning the Asian Games, Asia Cup or any tournament is not one of the steps towards a strong performance in the World Cup or the Olympics. It just becomes a bargaining tool for the coach to lengthen his appointment and for the players to declare they are going for gold in the Olympics or the World Cup and leverage more media or money. And each time, the media falls for the trap not realizing that since 1975, India hasn’t played a semifinal in a major tournament (I discount the 1980 Moscow gold because of the boycott).
In the past only a few teams have played hockey to their potential and deserved a semi-final berth. One was the 1996 Atlanta Olympics team that fell short of a last four place by a point, beating Spain the eventual finalist; the 2000 Sydney Olympics team that threw away a semi-final berth by drawing with Poland 1-1; and the 1994 World Cup team whose path was blocked by Germany and Holland playing a 0-0 draw to ensure they went through while India finished fifth.
The 1994 Sydney World Cup and 1996 Atlanta Olympics team was coached by Cedric D’Souza while the 2000 Sydney Olympics team was coached by V Bhaskaran. Just to add, the pool match between India and Australia that ended 2-2 was also declared the best match of the Olympics. It was dizzying hockey with the pace setting the turf on fire.
Indian Hockey today doesn’t have the same quality of players. Of course, a player of the calibre of Sardar Singh hasn’t come in the last 20 years. It’s time he is given a leadership role. Hockey is normally coached/captained by the chief coach. The captain’s role is honorary. But if the captain is an influential player like Sardar, the team does get motivated and also feels sheepish realizing the captain is doing all the work while they squander the chances away. Bharat Chettri at best was a lobby choice between the federation and the coaches. And, anyway, bringing two goalkeepers was an error.
The areas of concern in London have been the lost link between the coaching staff and the players. Substitution of players sometimes raised eyebrows. If the main play maker of the opposition was off the field, the Indians were not pressing with four to five forwards. And if the opposition play maker, for example, the Germans, was there, we were not putting up a line of defence. On the contrary, we went all out to attack, left gaping holes which the Germans exploited. Flanks were not used to swing the ball in and create penalty corners. It left your main penalty corner exponent without much to do. And when there were penalty corners, he muffed up. Options ran out. Normally, teams hold their options. India ran out of them. By the time they played Korea, they were hoping for divine intervention. Little does the Indian team realize that in modern hockey, divine intervention was a sixties phenomenon. Now it boils down to quality and supreme fitness.
The difference between the 7th placed side and the 12th is not much. It’s where the preparation counts. A few draws and even one win could be the reason for a 12th place and a 7th place finish; a deflected penalty corner or a badly defended penalty corner. I believe our preparation for the Olympics was not there. Our eyes may have been on finishing in 2016 at Rio but what you play in London defines your journey to Rio. Somewhere targets were not kept and the media hype after the qualifying let the team to think that finishing 7th won’t be a big deal and if we finish 6th, it was as good as the gold medal. Ridiculous amounts of prize money for qualifying made it a team of individuals not the other way around. When Sandeep Singh was given Rs 47 lakhs by the Haryana state government, a majority of that money was for the goals he scored. It did cause resentment. After all, a penalty corner is won by the forwards and then a team effort goes into it. Even though credit needs to be given to Haryana for awarding so much money, one can’t help the feeling it was just a qualifier!! But by then, the qualifier became the Olympic Games.
A few remarks like the players are only interested in becoming Olympians and not playing like Olympians was not way off the mark. Every Indian player who plays the Olympics knows the semi-final is a mirage. They know the truth. They understand modern hockey and they know where they stand. In their minds and hearts, they know they will never win against Germany, Holland and Australia, the three most disciplined sides in the tournament. But the system in India rewards you to become an Olympian and that is where the dream ends. Once the selection is done, the ambition is done and over with. They know they will get promotions and the tag of an Olympian can be utilized to good effect.
Hockey is a tough game – it’s not the fifties where pure skill and dribble could get you the goals. Now you fight for every inch. Shoulders are bigger, players are large, hits come screaming back at you, balls are travelling at speeds which can be called super-sonic. Other teams have excelled at the art of trapping. Look at Germany, Australia and Holland – you can count the number of traps they miss. For the rest of the countries – you lose count. And that is the difference between the top three and the rest. Even when Spain threatened under Coach Maurits Hendricks, they were superior in ball trapping and fitness. In India, if you dribble past four, that is art; in London it sure ensured us a play off for 11th/12th.
Danish Mujtaba is a good player but breathes the old school of hockey. In the match against Korea, he dribbled past one, two, three and then four before losing the ball. After the second dribble, he had the opportunity to pass but he didn’t. A coach needs to address that. Too much liberty is given in Indian hockey and the explanation is: There are no players. Either you crack the whip or just become a mediocre hockey nation pandering to the whims and fancies of players. And it’s not only Danish; it’s the entire bunch with the exception of Sardar Singh.
This particular team is not ambitious. It is visible on the field too. They lack the right attitude and mentally are not the kind to work hard. Even if we assume that the coaching staff lost the link with the players, the seniors in the team have put in eight years and could have rallied by speaking to the rest. After all, it’s the Olympics and not some mumbo-jumbo tournament. If a Sardar could play his heart out, what happened to the rest?
At the moment it is back to the drawing board. If you are not in the top six of the world, you can finish anywhere and it won’t matter. A nation like India should always be in the top six. And they would have to start now on a clean state. Unless this team plays in Europe and stands up to Germany, Holland, Spain, England, Belgium over 20 plus matches every year, nothing much will change. Playing Australia for at least 7 matches is a must. India needs to host a six-nation tournament every year where at least two top nations play. Unless, the Indian fans see their teams against top class opposition, they would never realize where we stand. This superficial hype built by an Indian media to suit its end needs to stop. Such is the despair to finish in the top four that a qualifying victory became the gold standard to judge the Indian team.
Belgium has built itself over 4-6 six years by playing all the European nations and improving. India plays the Azlan Shah or small teams – that is our preparation. It’s not only the players but the support staff also that needs to shoulder the blame. They should have seen this coming. If they didn’t, it means they too lived in a bubble like the players. Probably, they also got caught in the hype or maybe, they just went along with it as it suited them. Long term plans are okay but they are built on the foundation that the short ones provide.
I do believe the London Olympics was sacrificed on the altar of performing in Rio 2016. Players who could have performed here should have been in the team. Then the new lot could have taken their places. The scar of London would be difficult to erase.
One also needs to understand the psyche of the Indian hockey fan. It’s somewhere in our blood to see hockey build itself again. As Germany scored the fourth goal against India in the Pool game, an Indian fan, who had travelled from Canada screamed, “Bring Dilip Tirkey back.” These are fans who understand the sport. We need to understand their pain. Sport is a balm amidst corruption, scandal and full-blown materialism that threatens the very fabric of our society. It’s not as simple as winning and losing. Ask Kirani James what he means for Grenada (population 110,000) after he won the 400 mts gold!! In an Olympics, it’s not the individual but the nation. The Indian hockey team needs to understand the exact meaning of the word ‘team’ and the responsibility they had towards the national anthem.
Apologies don’t work anymore. It’s an era of standing on the podium. If you are not there, you are nowhere. Not if you are a team with a legacy like India.