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The Silver Lining


The recent silver medal at London has boosted the morale of the Indian hockey team, but there’s hardly any scope of complacency at this stage, says Harpal Singh Bedi
HARPAL SINGH BEDI | Issue Dated: July 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Rio Olympics | Hockey | P. R. Sreejesh-led | Pargat Singh |

Coming just ahead of the Rio Olympics, the second place performance of the Indian hockey team in the 36th and penultimate edition of Champions Trophy held in London has sent the fans into frenzy. It was after 34 years that the eight- time Olympic Gold medal winners had a podium finish in this prestigious tournament. This was also the first time that India made it to the final of this event. Although the P. R. Sreejesh-led side finished runners up, losing to Australia 1-3 in the penalty shootout, their overall showing has been exemplary. This was the second medal India claimed in this 38-year old tournament. The first medal, a bronze was claimed by the country in 1982 at Amstelveen (Holland).

 At London, India played against four of the five teams who have qualified for the 2016 Olympics. They beat Britain, drew with Germany and lost to Australia (twice) and Belgium. Their second win was against South Korea who have failed to make the cut for Games.

Coming back to the hockey team’s showing in London, there is no doubt that Sreejesh and his men put up an outstanding show especially in the final where they matched the world champions in every department of the game. India had lost to Australia 2-4 in the league stage, but in the final, they gave the world champions a run for their money. No doubt, India was lucky to make it to the title round because of the 3-3 played by England and Belgium in their last league encounter.

During the match, India frustrated the Australians no end; held them 0-0 till the regular time before the shootout was applied. Many experts agree that India has not played like this (in the finals) in recent times.

“It was a highly motivated and professional display which not only rattled the Australians but also came as a pleasant surprise for the spectators and supporters alike,” said former hockey trainer from Jammu and Kashmir, Tejinder Singh.

Analysing the performance, veteran hockey expert Anupam Ghulati, who commentated for this match said, “I am much impressed. Let me be frank, none of us in the commentary team expected India to play so well.”

India raised the level of its game while it was indeed surprising to see the Australians fumbling. The world champions muffed eight penalty corners and a stroke in this title contest. “Nobody could imagine that Australians will waste a stroke,” Ghulati said, but added, “Let us not get carried away by our making it to the final. The fact remains  that we lost it. We have a tough road ahead but this showing will definitely boost the morale of the players and now it is for them to live to the expectation they have raised.”

Ace defender and former India captain Pargat Singh was very careful with his words. “It was definitely a good show. It was our maiden final and the boys showed they have the capability and capacity to raise the game. However, I want to caution the players not to be overconfident or complacent,” Singh opined. Pargat, who is now an Akali Dal MLA in Punjab, further added that “Indians will now be under scanner from other teams in Rio. This  superb showing  in London can also become problematic for India in Rio because all the other contenders will not take them lightly and  they will have different plans in place to meet this new threat’  coming from  the  former Asian giant.”

This may be true, as this euphoria after the second place finish at London can turn out to be double edged sword. It can boost the morale of the players but can also put them under severe pressure. Sometimes, it is better to have an underdog tag because then the team is not on the radar of other title contenders. It gives a chance to prepare quietly without being under constant glare.

Another former captain Zafar Iqbal, who led India at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics also echoed Pargat’s view saying that though he was mighty pleased with this show, India will now have to be circumspect more.

“I am impressed because the team played some excellent hockey and they tested the might of Australia in the final. It was pleasing to see players maintaining their cool and never getting ruffled, while the Australians were flustered and panicky. They also tended to be physical,” he added to good measure.

How we handle that pressure at the Olympics will be very crucial.  Olympics is at a different level altogether. Teams will come with different tactics and players, so one cannot compare these two events. India finishing second in London does not obviously mean that it will be second at Rio.

 There are some views that Australia and Germany did not send their full teams; but the statistic tells us a different story. Australia had 11 of the 18 players who played in the 2014 Champions Trophy. Similarly, Britain had 13 players, Belgium 15 and Germany had 7 players who figured in the last edition of the competition. India were without their regular skipper ace midfielder Sardar Singh and drag flicker Rupinder Pal Singh. 

Coach Roelant Oltmans’ decision to give chance to some promising youngsters yielded handsome results. Harmanpreet, Mandeep Singh, Surender Kumar and Pradeep Mor were very impressive on the field. Defender Harmanpreet was even named the Best Junior Player of the tournament.

Off the field, India’s 6th foreign coach, Roelant Oltmans, is turning out to be a lucky mascot. One hopes he will be able to guide the team to a podium finish at Rio or at least end among the first six. Oltmans, who is being  praised by all and sundry for the team’s showing, must be aware about the fate that previous foreign coaches met after their failure to live up to the huge expectations of the people and federation.

His predecessors – Gerard Rach, Jose Brasa, Michael Nobbs, Terry Walsh and Paul Van Ass – all were either sacked or forced to quit. The 61 year old Dutchman was initially appointed Director High Performance but after the sacking of Van Ass last year, Hockey India named him the coach of the men’s national team till the Rio Olympics. His tenure is likely to be extended if the team does well at the Games.

Oltmans who has also coached the Dutch and Pakistan teams, was justified in his jubilation saying, “The way India performed in the title contest has boosted our faith of a fine show in the Olympics. I'm delighted with my team. By all yardsticks, their performance in the final was outstanding. I am proud of what we've been doing as a team. Our performance is getting better with every tournament. Any coach would be absolutely pleased with this Indian show.” He added, "We'll use the confidence gained here at the Champions Trophy to give a better display in the Olympic Games at Rio de Janeiro."

There is no gainsaying the fact that Indian hockey is at a crossroads. After several decades, it is on the verge of a spectacular take off. The nation will wait expectantly for the Olympics to see if the storm in this teacup becomes a tempest or not.   

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017