Sunday, June 4, 2023

Old habits refuse to die in Indian Hockey

For India’s hockey fans, host India’s loss to New Zealand in the elimination ‘cross-over’ match during the ongoing Hockey World Cup in Odisha reveals that certain old habits keep haunting Indian hockey. Conceding the goals in the dying moments, unorganized play in the ‘D’, individual heroics taking precedence over team play, absence of ‘short passes’ in the ‘D’ resulting in wild shots, being unnecessarily defensive when down to 10 men – almost as an involuntary reflex, and resultant ‘deep defending’ created opportunities for rivals as well as breaking their own momentum.
A rejuvenated ‘Hockey India’ won the Bronze Medal in the last Olympics, but as they try to improve, the attitude and some old habits of the players refuse to die. This was India’s loss rather than New Zealand’s win. In modern hockey, there is very little to choose from among some of the top ranked teams but squandering the comfortable 3-1 lead held till the 3rd quarter and allowing two goals in a must win situation reflects the lack of killing instinct. In fact New Zealand first goal came in the last minute of the second quarter. Although we won Bronze medal match against Germany in last Olympics not many remember that we almost conceded a goal via a penalty corner in the last 10 seconds of the match.
Starting the campaign with a 2-0 win against Spain, India had to settle for draw against England next. Although India had a decent start, doing a bit better would have given a favourable goal difference in case of toss-up for the top spot in the group. But India’s weaknesses were again exposed by the lower ranked Wales who clawed back to 2-2 draw after India was leading 2-0. Somehow Wales could not keep the tempo and conceded the match.
Again, Wales scored two goals when India were down to 10 men and India suddenly started defending deep and Indian players were mere spectators when Wales scored the second goal. This happened when India was trying for massive win to offset a goal difference of 7 goals to go past England to top the group.
Yes, India have lost badly in previous times to less fancied teams like Japan, Korea, New Zealand, France, but things improved since Rolan Oltsman took over as the coach.
But the same pace has not been maintained under Graham Reid. In fact as India allowed a late insurgence by its opponents like New Zealand in the “D” that almost found the net in the dying moments of the game. The ball was just found short of the goal line when hooter sounded.
In the Penalty shoot-out India make a Mockery of themselves. First the likes of Akashdeep Singh, Mandeep Singh and Manpreet Singh were missing – perhaps bigger and well-established names could have made a better psychological impact on the opposing goalkeeper. It cannot be said that they did not practice penalty shoot outs but does not come forward for the fear of failing. Coach has to insist on certain things and cannot leave it to the captain or the players. Shamsher Singh was not in his usual best even in the retake. Harmanpreet Singh disappointed – failing to score on both occasions of penalty shoot out. In fact the second time, his attempted ‘drag flick’ within 3 seconds invited criticism from everyone and even missed a Penalty stroke against Wales. It was apparent that Manpreet Singh was not able to give his 100%.
Coaches have to ruthlessly identify players who are performing well during practice sessions and are willing to take responsibilities. Instead, Graham Reid appears to be leaving everything to be decided by the captain and the team. Even during half-time he appeared to be asking the players what they are going to do rather than giving directions. Even the short interview during the half-time didn’t inspire much confidence.
On one occasion, with the scores level and ball was in Indian possession with 30 seconds to go. Indians didn’t try enough to get in to the striking circle and time flew. Perhaps Reid should have screamed about the running time because it is impossible for players to keep a tab on the time since the ball changes sides in a blink of an eye. Reid landed up in India after his failed stint with Australia when they failed to reach semifinals in 2016 World Cup.
Why Harmanpreet was made captain and not Sreejesh is debatable. If body language and performance was something to go by, the burden of captaincy was telling on Harmanpreet adversely. He missed many penalty corners, penalty stroke but his field game was wanting too- missing passes, inaccurate aerial’s, losing the possession when surrounded, wild shots in the striking-circle, directionless drag flicks etc. PR Sreejesh being experienced can be given captaincy so that Harmanpreeeth can concentrate on penalty corner conversion.
Everything does not seem okay with the Indian Hockey Federation as well. Federation has a hand in Rupinder Pal’s retirement and asking S.V Sunil to take rest. Manpreet singh and PR Sreejesh were not given captaincy due to disciplinary grounds. But is it the time to punish them. PR Sreejesh has handled well previously but this time for his playing some celebrity tournaments without permission invited the ire of the federation. Sreejesh captaincy is required for the team rather than merely him coveting it. The pressure of playing in the home conditions and crowd-expectations may have added to the woes.
Psychological advantage plays a big role in Hockey. The way the underdog teams fought back was good to see. If trailing teams equalize, they have a distinct psychological advantage and momentum in the shoot-outs and that’s what happened to many teams in this tournament. It happened whole through the tournament including final.
Although India corrected most of its mistakes in the match against Japan and South Aftrica for 9th position but those teams are not to be counted. We need to learn a sharper play like Belgium, good defese like Germany, short and quick passes like Netherlands and aggressive play like Australia. Probably it is time to say bye to Graham Reid and find a new coach. One may argue that under him we won the Olympic Bronze but that was because of Rolan Oltmas who rejuvenated the team. Players like Dhanraj Pillay could be a good coach. But whether he gels with the players is the question. It is time to forget the past, rejuvenate the team, bring the experience and spirit of youthfulness to the team and target next Olympics.
Some prescriptions to improve the performance are – identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the team and each player. Strengths being takeovers or snatching the possession. when the player is surrounded by 2 to 3 players then a teammate has to coordinate well nearby for receiving the ball – a friend in need is a friend indeed. Often they surround the player and get the ball possession. This may not be ideal against teams like Australia or Belgium because if the takeover does not happen then lot of open spaces available for opposition.
Short passes are very essential to change the complexion of the game. In the “D” one can draw lessons from Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Germany and how they maneuver and find the net. With a good team play. Even the man of the matches should be given to the player who played selfless Hockey and help the team to win the goal than individual heroics. Short passes come in handy in the “D” to make it difficult for the goal keeper to re-align. When the ball comes from side to front position goalkeepers usually try to cover the angle and this is where one has to find the co-player to find the net in the vacant area of the goalkeeper. Even in Penalty shoot outs cornering the goal keeper to one side and spinning off the ball to the other side is to be mastered.
Indian team has a point or two to learn from Belgium where they were relentlessly trying to score a goal even in the last minutes of the 4th quarter despite leading 4-0 against France while team-India prefers contentment with whatever lead it has. An essential lesson is that hockey matches are won by scoring goals and not merely by defending them. During Oltmans’ time, India learn to get the goals for themselves rather than conceding at the dying moments and succeeded many times.
It is time the Indian media gave more attention to hockey. Look at the sports channels repeatedly showing IPL recordings every time, not hockey or other sports. India’s match against Japan was not telecast.
The turnout for the Odisha for Indian matches was good but very poor for the other counties.
There is a strong case for keeping our hockey players and teams as busy as the cricket team by participating in tournaments in Europe where they get exposed to players, teams, tactics and strategies of teams from Belgium, England, Germany, Netherlands, France etc. Talk about starting FIH hockey league is a welcome sign.
There is a need of at least one hockey ground in every district. Central Government is trying to improve the sports culture in India by bringing Khelo India, Khelo youth games, regional Olympic Games, TOP, rejuvenated National games, and so on. Parents need to see sports as alternate career options for their children.
For India to win, everyone has to put their hands up, collectively. A national team is drawn from a nation and made by a nation, not just the eleven persons on the field. The national game is a national responsibility too.
By Rajashekara. N.
(The author is an IPS officer working as Deputy Inspector General of Police (Border)
Dimapur, Nagaland


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