World Cup: Lack of international exposure show in India’s close loss to France
October 19, 2019. That was when the Indian men’s junior hockey team last played an international. They lost 1-2 to Great Britain in the final of the Sultan of Johor Cup in Malaysia.
Covid-19 meant the team had to wait another two years, one month and five days—a timespan in which a generation can graduate to the senior level—before getting to play another international, against France in what was the junior World Cup opener in Bhubaneswar on Wednesday evening.
The obvious signs of rust was visible as the Vivek Sagar Prasad-led team lost 4-5 at the Kalinga Stadium. A hattrick from skipper Timothee Clement and a goal each from Corentin Sellier and Benjamin Marque was enough to seal the match for a team that had not even qualified for the last Junior World Cup five years ago, against a team that won it.
India’s game was not composed, they couldn’t complete their long passes but more importantly let the French to penetrate their circle throughout the 60-minute encounter.
A major problem caused by no international competition was the lack of information and game structure of opposition teams. Also, video footage at the junior level is not easily available.
“That’s always the case with the junior group; you don’t get access to their videos either because it is not available or they haven’t played during the said period,” said India chief coach Graham Reid, who took over the reins of this team temporarily after the Tokyo Olympics. “But countries have a similar way of playing. So we showed clips of the French senior team, what specific type of things they engage in. That is the sort of preparation we have been doing.”
So how did India get around the lack of international competition? The answer was to play matches against the senior national team.
Just like the colts now, the Indian senior team was too out of match practice in the lead-up to the Olympics. It was Reid’s brainchild to make the senior team play against the juniors. It helped that both were attending long national camps at Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) centre in Bengaluru.
The training and practice games proved beneficial as Manpreet Singh’s squad did what no other team had in the last 41 years—return home with an Olympic medal.
“The seniors played a number of games against the juniors during Olympic preparation which was invaluable to both squads and helped us get an understanding of the things we needed to work on before the Olympics,” said Reid.
Reid decided to use the same method for the juniors. “Since we did not have overseas competition, the team played practice games against the seniors which were quite valuable,” he said.
The two squads met multiple times, in Bengaluru and later in Bhubaneswar, over the past couple of months. “They asked questions (from senior team), did a lot of learning on what it takes to perform at the highest level, they understand what is required but also got some belief from the way we performed in Tokyo,” said the Australian.
Having trained with the colts for months, senior team skipper Manpreet Singh is confident that despite the loss, India will go deep in the tournament. “They actually beat us in one of the (practice) games. I am pretty confident they have the ability to reach the final,” said Manpreet.
A penalty corner specialist, junior India vice-captain Sanjay spent hours picking the brains of ace drag-flickers Harmanpreet Singh, who is the current FIH Player of the Year, and Rupinder Pal Singh, who retired after the Olympics, discussing strategies and structure over video analysis meetings.
“They (seniors) used to share their experience of the Olympics. The penalty corner specialists of our team would discuss how to beat the first rusher or goalkeeper, how to take steps for the drag, how and when to release the ball with Harmanpreet and Rupinder. They taught us a lot, it was really helpful,” said Sanjay.
Sanjay’s learning proved fruitful as the defender scored a hattrick against France with Uttam Singh scoring India’s other goal.
India will look to put their campaign back on track when they face Canada, who lost 0-1 to Poland earlier in the day, in their second Pool B game on Thursday.
In Pool A action, 2016 runners-up Belgium thrashed South Africa 5-1 and Malaysia moved past Chile 2-1. Six-time champions Germany hammered Pakistan 5-2 in Pool D.