India’s excruciatingly long 33-year drought for a major medal ended with a bronze at the Hockey World League Final in Raipur last week. After beating Netherlands via tie-break shootout in the third-place match, will Sardar Singh & Co be able to end another, longer wait of 36 years for an Olympic medal?
That’s a million-dollar question and one that would be answered in August 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
India clinched the last of their eight hockey gold medals at the boycott-marred 1980 Moscow Olympics, while they bagged their last medal in a major FIH-level competition two years later at the Champions Trophy in Amstelveen, Netherlands.
Since then, it has been a story of heartbreak — narrow misses and poor performances in the Olympics, which culminated in embarrassment in London when they finished last.
The much-celebrated medal last week coupled with recent good performances and surge in world rankings has obviously doubled the already sky-high expectations and both the players and fans are considering the Raipur success as a launch pad for Olympic glory.
The following two facts could be considered a true indicator of where India stand in world hockey now.
Of their six matches in Raipur, the team won only two, losing three and drawing one against Germany in the league phase. In those matches, Roelant Oltmans’ team managed to score only nine goals while conceding 14. This performance was against opponents who were experimenting and thus brought depleted squads to Raipur.
One of the most eye-catching moves in hockey is the deflected goal. It usually results when a player beats the goalkeeper by managing to change the direction of a hard-hit shot into the shooting circle. To execute a successful deflected goal one requires vision, planning, coordination and pin-point passing. In Raipur, Australia, Germany, Netherlands and Great Britain scored some good deflected goals.
India could manage that once, forward Ramandeep Singh’s goal against Holland in the bronze medal match.
A day before India’s league match against Netherlands, India’s assistant coach Tushar Khandker took one of the players into the striking circle for practicing some moves to score a deflected goal. Khandker hit around a dozen passes into the circle and though a few of them were wayward and not along the carpet –expected as Khandker is retired and one can’t expect high accuracy from him – what came as a bigger disappointment was that the said player couldn’t connect a single delivery.
The Raipur performance exposed faults in basics skills like trapping, hitting and playing to a structure and coach Oltmans admitted the mistakes but said they were in the process of rectifying them.
“For me, the most important thing is we need to be patient and take some time when we execute our plans. The boys are playing the way I want them to. But too many times they commit mistakes and then lose energy, a lot of energy, in rectifying it,” said Oltmans.
The Dutch coach added the team had gained a lot of confidence from their Raipur win.
“I always said that one thing I want to bring back is glory to the country. Since it comes after such a long time, it’s special. Winning a medal in whichever country is a great feeling — but it’s also about the situation and about the details. Especially here in India, where no one is looking at the process, only the outcome.”
Though the Indians are yet to reach the stage Oltmans wants them to, their opponents aren’t ready to discount them.
“Indian players are very skillful and talented. I also think they have improved a lot in recent times. They have become defensively strong and it is very difficult to score against them,” says Belgium coach Shane McLeod.
For German coach Valentin Altenburg, who coached the Mumbai team in the Hockey India League, they are prone to succumbing to pressure.
“However, their strengths, being very emotional and with a lot of passion, at some point can also be a weakness. So far they have not allowed weakness to be seen,” he added.
Altenburg said they were still to master the art of blending individual skills with team vision. “Obviously, everyone is very good in dribbling but if you have vision for players around you, it can be very dangerous for the opponents. If they combine their individual qualifications of dribbling with good vision for players around them, it will make India one of the top nations again.”
That is what the coaching staff under Oltmans is working on and hopes to achieve in the next eight months.
If they manage, India would be a major contender at Rio as the new format gives them more than one chance of rectifying their mistakes. Just like in the Champions Trophy and Hockey World League, the Olympic Games too will have a knockout quarterfinal stage.
Maybe that will turn the tide in India’s favour in Rio.