Sunday evening was a very special one for Hockey in India. In a truly remarkable game in which they were losing 2-0 at half time and 2-1 at three quarter time against world number two side the Netherlands, India went into a 5-3 lead in the final quarter only to squander it with five seconds left on the clock. With the game locked at 5-5 it was time for a shoot-out, which India won 3-2. This was their first medal in a major international tournament for 33 years.
Not surprisingly the media and the fans were ecstatic. The style in which they achieved their bronze medal was something that will live long in the memory of those who were there and those who watched on television. In the euphoria of their success many were suddenly talking of India finally finishing on the podium in Rio next year. This is of course what every hockey fan in the country dreams of after an absence of 35 years.
India has won 8 hockey gold medals, six of them consecutively. They are the most successful hockey nation at the Olympic Games, yet with the dawn of the synthetic pitch, – a move many in India believed was introduced to bring them back to the pack, – they have struggled to match the success of the past.
In truth there is not time to theorise the reasons why India has dropped down the world rankings here, as there are many contributing factors. The positive news is that they are finally closing the gap on the top teams and becoming more competitive, and so there is hope that they can achieve a podium finish; Yet to expect that in Rio would appear foolhardy.
The Hockey India League has certainly helped Indian players. Being exposed to world class coaches from overseas has benefitted many of the younger players. Playing alongside Olympic Gold medallists and World Champions has also helped in terms of young players seeing what it takes to reach that level, the dedication, the focus at training, the discipline and continued practise. Sadly once the HIL comes to an end each year the players lucky enough to be a part of a Franchise head back to their provinces and much of what they have learned is forgotten. That is not good for the Hockey India League or the players. Hockey India needs to ensure that the areas that the Franchise coaches want players to work on are worked on in the coming year so that the league improves as well as the individual players.
There is no doubt that the success that this group of players has just enjoyed stemmed from playing alongside many of their opponents. This has made them feel on a par with them, whether they are ranked number one in the world or not.
In the lead up to the World League Finals India lost one test, drew another, and won a third against the world number one Australians; proving they can compete. Yet in a tournament one still expects the mentally tough Australians to have the edge. In the World League finals they drew with both the world number two and three ranked teams, Netherlands and Germany, beating the former in a shoot out.
They beat the fourth ranked team Great Britain in the quarter finals. But lost to the fifth ranked side, Argentina in their first pool match and also the team ranked one place below them in the world rankings, Belgium in the semi finals.
So in the normal sixty minutes of match time India achieved only one victory in six games. Despite some very encouraging performances there is a great deal of work to be done between now and Rio if they are to seriously become medal contenders. They have shown they can match the best teams in the world, but have not yet shown that they can beat them.
In the Hockey World League semi finals they lost to Great Britain, Belgium and Australia by convincing margins. The finals have shown that in six months they have closed the gap. There is however still a great deal of work to be done.
The defence needs to be much tighter. They conceded goals in every game they played, and the second most goals in the tournament behind Canada. They won the least penalty corners in the tournament, which is not good when you look at the fact that 35% of their goals in the last two years have come from penalty corner conversions. Only Canada and Argentina scored less field goals than India of the 8 teams playing in the tournament. So there is plenty of work still be done.
One thing that was abundantly clear in the Bronze medal game is that India can no longer afford to have their captain lying deep in the midfield. Sardar caused the Netherlands all kinds of trouble when he pushed forward late in the match, with his wonderful passing skills he was able to feed the potent forward line more effectively. Manpreet showed that he is more than capable of manning the midfield.
There are plenty of positive signs but there is still plenty of work to be done before India is a serious medal contender. Come the Olympic Games there are no quarter finals. To be in with a chance of a medal teams must finish in the top two of their six team pool. India failed to win a game in their pool at the Hockey World League Final. Based on previous Olympic games they will have to win at least three games and pick up a draw or two to make the semi finals.
Having witnessed the scenes in Raipur, let us hope that the success achieved there will see the players focus on the hard work that needs to be done in the next 8 months and make the people’s dream a realistic possibility.