Saturday, May 18, 2024

Indian hockey’s infinite spin-cycle of emotions

The Indian hockey team may be as unpredictable as the weather, but its long-term fortunes follow a more predictable trajectory — an unexpected triumph, renewed hopes of sustained success, hype at major events culminating in disappointment and heads rolling, another emotional cycle starting all over again, rinse and repeat.

The previous cycle began with the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, a success that was thought to be replicable at the 2023 World Cup at home. That, of course, did not materialise, leading to the premature exit of a quarter-dozen staff.

The FIH Pro League earlier this month marked yet another beginning in this infinite cycle of emotions in the life of hockey hopefuls, as a new-look Indian team put on quite a show.

The Pro League, stretching over a good part of the sporting year, has been the ideal testing ground for teams, allowing them to trial combinations, personnel and gameplans ahead of major competitions. Full-strength sides are seldom fielded. So, the results need to be taken with a shot of objectivity, with the focus instead on the intangibles.

It is in this context that India’s unbeaten run in the recent mini-series in Rourkela, featuring Germany and Australia, offers hope that the World Cup disappointment is a thing of the past.

Fresh start: India’s strong performance in the Pro League will give incoming coach Craig Fulton both a blueprint for the future and clarity on the shortcomings at the World Cup. 
 

Fresh start: India’s strong performance in the Pro League will give incoming coach Craig Fulton both a blueprint for the future and clarity on the shortcomings at the World Cup.
 
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It provides incoming coach Craig Fulton both with a blueprint for the future and clarity on the shortcomings at the World Cup.

World Cup problems

Fitness was a clear factor, the Indians not even a patch on their former selves. The dearth of explanations for certain omissions — Jugraj Singh, for example — and selections, and the seeming shortage of back-up plans once the opposition had figured out the primary one were others. The lack of clarity and communication on the players’ roles left both the viewers and the team confused. And the absence of senior players, regulars during shootouts over the years, from the crucial tie-breaker against New Zealand remains a mystery.

Of course, there were rumours of camps and favourites within the team, but unless interim coach David John, assisted by Shivendra Singh and B.J. Cariappa, worked magic to make them disappear in just over a month, there is little to explain how largely the same leadership group turned things around in the Pro League.

Beyond the scorelines, it was clearly a different Indian team — and not just the faces. The fitness levels had visibly improved — captain Harmanpreet Singh played an entire game and three-quarters of the next on consecutive days, unheard of in modern hockey, with no let-up in his performance — but more than the body, it was the mind that seemed free.

Flair and fearlessness

The Indians played with flair and fearlessness, unwilling to take the foot off the pedal under pressure. Barring a few nervous moments, especially in the third and fourth matches, there was also the clarity to stick to the structure, regardless of the game-state.

If there was one area that made all the difference, it was the attack. India’s defence had held firm even during the World Cup but the attack had faltered. The Pro League saw perhaps the most inexperienced forward line in Indian men’s hockey in a long time and it made for supremely exciting viewing.

Those excluded from the recent games — seniors such as Akashdeep Singh, Lalit Upadhyay and Mandeep Singh — will have their task cut out in proving themselves to the new South African coach who comes with a reputation for caring about only two things: fitness and performance.

Selvam Karthi, Sukhjeet Singh and Abhishek have opened up the competition up front, giving coach Fulton options he will love.

Karthi, in particular, can be the poacher India has long searched for, with his keen sense of positioning inside the ‘D’ and an eye for the right scoring angles. Sukhjeet has the skills to dodge past any defence and the calmness to stay in the moment under pressure while Abhishek displayed not just a strong grip on the basics of ball control but also an ability to receive and pass on the go.

It helps that all three, despite their lack of experience, possess acute game sense. Hopefully this will only sharpen with time, helping to reduce unforced errors. Their selflessness in attack, despite competing for spots, bodes well, for that is the bedrock of a successful team.

Workhorses Rabichandra Singh and Vishnukant Singh expressed their game intelligence through their passing and pressing although discipline is an area that needs work.

At the back, Pawan Malik held up admirably and provided much-needed back-up to Krishan Pathak and P.R. Sreejesh, the latter continuing to defy time, especially in tie-breakers where he proved his numero uno status once again against Australia.

Old faces, new roles

The team management’s decisions to move players from their established roles worked too. Manpreet Singh was played deeper in defence to add stability and offer experienced support to Harmanpreet, Hardik Singh was given the responsibility of moving the game through the centre and drag-flicker Jugraj Singh, an inexplicable omission from the World Cup, supplied solutions to more than one problem — he relieved pressure on Harmanpreet, brought in variety and provided a second battery during penalty corners to keep the opposition guessing.

But the biggest surprise was entrusting Dilpreet Singh with the responsibility of keeping the midfield together. For the 23-year-old, who has always played up front, to be put in such a role and for him to perform it admirably was an eye-opener and a testament to his natural brilliance.

It is too early to call the recent performances a new beginning — Indian hockey has seen too many false dawns. Hockey India is yet to finalise the support staff for the team, including the key positions of scientific advisor and analytical coach. A full-time mental trainer, a long-held demand, continues to be elusive.

But the players themselves might just have given Fulton a better sense of his resources, as the team looks to win the Asian Games in six months’ time and qualify for the Paris Olympics.

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