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HWL 2013-14

Much Ado about nothing


The Finals of the Hockey World League did provide the spectators with a rare chance to savour and admire the best that the game has to offer, but how much this will eventually help revive India’s declining hockey fortunes is anybody’s guess
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: February 2, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Hockey |India |Hockey India League | |
Last year, when Hockey India League was launched with much fanfare, there was a sense of optimism in the air. It was argued time and again that Indian youngsters will learn a lot playing with foreign hockey stars and in the years to come, we will see a definite rise in the standards of Indian hockey. 
It was difficult to judge, whether or not this line of argument held water at that time. After rickety start, couple of teams in the HIL started to play as a perfectly coordinated team and there were no glaring issues as far as coordination with the foreign players were concerned. Uninitiated would like us to believe that local players raised their game to the level of the foreigners. But the truth was, the foreigners deliberately brought down their game to suit with the standard of local talent. And this became apparent when the same set of players played for their respective national teams in the Hockey World League Finals that concluded this week in Delhi. 
Hockey is a team game and foreign players play it like that. Individual brilliance has to be indentified from close knit moves and brilliant calibrated defences; with the exception of goalies. But when you have best teams from the world playing with full might, you actually get to contrast it from the performance of the Indian team. And sorry to say, the contrast could not have been starker. 
For the most part in the tournament, Indian team played like a bunch of school boys with little coordination. In fact, apart from goalie PR Sreejesh, none of the players could have made it to the national team had they attempted to play for other nations. 
India started its campaign by losing 0-2 to England in their opening group fixture. Had it been the only match on that day, India’s performance would have looked less miserable. But to pull the domestic spectators, Hockey India had placed all the matches involving India in the late evening. By that time, one had already seen three superb encounters. Hence the comparison was inevitable.
It was pretty evident from the very first match that some of the most celebrated names in the recent past have started to show signs of ageing. In the last 4-5 years, midfield was the only position where India showed spine. But in this entire tournament, both of India’s celebrated halfbacks, Sardara Singh and SV Sunil, appeared a shadow of their former selves. SV Sunil was particularly pathetic. The shine of the last Commonwealth Gamers had worn off and most of the time he looked wandering like a headless chicken on the field. Sardara Singh also appeared off colour for the most part with flashes of brilliance here and there. In fact, it was because of his silly mistakes that India had to draw its match with Germany after taking what looked like then an assailable lead of 3-1. Even in the positioning match with Belgium, it was because of Sardara’s blunder that India lost the match after taking a 1-0 lead. Birendra Lakra’s role was more of a fullback than a halfback, but he disappointed none the less. 
Even among the forwards, there is nothing much to write about. Agreed, Mandeep Singh bagged the Young Player of the Tournament Award; but a bit of dissection lays bare the truth behind it. Mandeep is young and the onus lies on the senior players to coordinate with him. But even after two and a half years of playing as a leftwing with Sardara and SV Sunil, there is virtually no coordination between the halfbacks and Mandeep. It might sound cruel considering Mandeep is very young, but let me stick my neck out and say that he is scoring primarily because of a change in rule that India has rued all long—the removal of offside law. 
Yuvraj Walmiki is a gifted inner. He is also utilized as a left-up. But he also looks completely out of sync with either Sardara or Sunil or for that matter any other player. So that barely leaves SK Uthappa and Nikkin Thimmaiah to do some tackling. But of them disappointed badly.
And if that sounds like too much complaint, then I guess you don’t want to listen about the defenders. Both Kothajit Singh and Birendra Lakra have to remain tied down to defence, leaving Sardara and Sunil too much exposed. But there is little option on table as other defenders like Rupinderpal Singh and VR Raghunath have continued to show poor defending skills. The new lad, Amit Rohidas, is talented but has pretty little to get inspired from in the D. Rupinder’s bad run as a drag-flicker is appalling. In matches against England and New Zealand, Rupinder struggled to even collect the ball from the injector during Penalty Corners. Coach Terry Walsh got so fed up that he started giving more and more opportunity to Raghunath, who was a tad less disappointing than Rupinder. 
On the other hand, Australia, the Netherlands, England and even Belgium showed some exemplary game of hockey in the tournament. In a tightly contested tournament, there is bound to be some surprises, some fluke. This series too had its share of upsets. It was rather sad that Australia and the Netherlands had to fight it out in the semi finals itself. On the other hand, England’s loss in the hands of the Kiwis in the Sudden Death stopped their spirited campaign in the semi finals only.
But over all, these two teams showed their desire to be counted among the best in the world. Left-in Simon Child and Inner Ashley Jackson showed some exemplary skills with the stick respectively for New Zealand and England. Although New Zealand’s defence was full of holes and they got hammered lots of goals in every match. But they did win three matches on penalty strokes and reached semi finals. 
England on the other hand was the only team that won every game till their Sudden Death loss in the semi finals and showed a game of grit and patience. If their style of play was not as cracking as Australia, it was not as boring as the Netherlands. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that the team in the years to come will start to continuously find itself in the top three. 
Australia gave the spectators the thrill of attacking hockey, although that also meant that they could not reach the final. But that did not dampen their spirit in any ways. Even in the 3rd-4th position placement match, they showed no fear for taking the game right into opposition half with only goalie guarding the home turf. Australia had fielded a rather young team with many of its best players skipping the tournament. But the kind of game that team displayed was top notch. The crowd especially loved the right-in Glenn Turner, whose cracking game was as much an amusement for the crowd as his bald head. That essentially meant that there was never a dull moment while he was on the field. 
Germany, on the other hand, was a real disappointment. The team deservedly finished seventh and had the luck been on Argentinean side, they would have gotten the wooden spoon. The team looked listless throughout the tournament and did not know what to do with the ball. Dribbling, passes, scoops and collections, they performed below par in each and every department. The coach will now have to go back to the board and re-strategize the entire plan. There is no dearth in talent. Players like Florian Fuchs, Moritz Fuerste, Tobias Hauke and Nicholas Jacobi are some of the best players that the game of hockey has seen in this or any other decade. The coach just needs to sit with them and listen them out. Make no mistake, Germany cannot let themselves be languishing at the bottom for long. 
That India finished at 6th is nothing to celebrate. It was sheer luck that we had a dispirited German side to take on and we utilised our chances well in that one match that finally mattered. All along it was said that India will benefit a lot from playing with the best teams in the world. If they indeed benefited from this tournament, it will be on display in the upcoming world cup. I for one failed to see any lesson that India learnt. All the perennial problems that ails Indian Hockey, namely losing the match in last 10 minutes, no coordination among halfbacks and strikers, pathetic injection and collection of ball during drag-flicks, were on full display till the last match. 
To give Coach Terry Walsh his due, he is still new and will take time in delivering. But my concern is, he’ll probably be sent packing like some of his predecessors if he so much as tries to ruffle the feathers of the officials of Hockey India. And let me tell you, they get ruffled quite often and quite easily.
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017