Watching some of the top hockey teams like Australia, Netherlands, Germany play at the 2012 Olympics gives you a fair impression of the improvement areas Indian team needs to focus on. Michael Nobbs-coached Indian team adopted the Australian style of hockey, the merits of which were seen in all the games India played in the last six months going into the London Olympics.
But with the Indian team delivering their worst-ever performance at hockey’s showpiece event, all the demerits of it are coming out of the closet and that too, in droves.
As a hockey fan first, and second as a sports journalist, I am saddened at the way the Indian team has cut such a frustrating figure at the Olympics. In fact, all the pre-tournament hopes pinned on India got a massive leg up when India fought hard against the Netherlands, especially in the second half after a forgettable first half before an ‘unfair’ penalty stroke denial in the dying minutes of the game robbed us of the opportunity to script a 3-3 draw. The only solace was that we lost narrowly (2-3) against one of the world’s top sides.
If we thought, the loose ends (we saw against Netherlands) would be tightened in the next game against New Zealand, we were in for a rude jolt. Save for an early goal by India through Sandeep Singh, the remainder of the game was witness to the shoddy sight of ball trapping/possession errors inside our own ‘D’ as well as in the midfield.
Our defensive gaffes were just too many for our comfort so much so that every opposition team now fully realized that this Indian team can be taken apart because their defence has the propensity to consistently falter.
I was shocked to see someone as experienced as Ignace Tirkey (254 international caps) commit school-boyish blunders in defence, and that too, with alarming regularity. Even Sandeep Singh was guilty of easily conceding possession. Vokkaliga Raghunath was also part of the guilty party but one must say that, he was the only one who showed some heart to offer some resistance.
Penalty conversion was tipped to be one of our improvement areas in recent times but it panned out to be a huge disappointment. Sandeep Singh was doing no good to his reputation (his defensive skills never convinces us) and struggled to blast home his penalty corners.
Given Sandeep’s senior stature in the side, another talented drag-flicker V R Raghunath was not getting enough opportunities to fire his PCs in. Maybe, Raghunath should be given a bigger role in taking penalty corners and lets face it; his defensive skills are far better than Sandeep and this would help India as the strapping defender can execute both skills with aplomb.
The fragility of the Indian defenders put our goalkeepers – Bharat Chetri and PR Sreejesh – under tremendous pressure throughout the tournament. In fact, it won’t be a far-fetched exaggeration to suggest that the performance of our goal-tenders has been our lone silver lining.
Midfield is one key area which dictates the way the game tilts. India have been found wanting. Play-maker Sardar Singh dished out a mixed bag kind of performance. Although Sardara manned the midfield resiliently, he was also guilty of conceding possession as well as indulging in wrong passing. But take Sardar out, you start to realize that our midfield is almost non-existent without him.
Maybe the team management made a tactical bloomer by not inducting Kothajit in the final 16 Olympic squad and picking him only as a standby.
The muted apprehension of the Indian forwards’ poor finishing reared its ugly head at London. The only significant change in the forward-line’s performance was that they created another liability for the team – not creating enough scoring chances coupled with their already established tag of being ‘poor finishers’.
The trio of Shivendra Singh, SV Sunil and Tushar Khandekar failed miserably to rise to the occasion. Shivendra was expected to spearhead the attack but instead turned out to be a passenger on the turf, doing little of note.
SV Sunil captures the attention of all with his ‘Cheetah’ like runs but does very little beyond that. Tushar Khandekar shoned in patches but as a senior pro, he was expected to deliver much more than that. It’s difficult to see the international careers of the triumvirate spanning longer, especially Shivendra and Tushar.
Indian forwards were guilty of erring while spraying crosses from the flanks. On most occasions, it would seem as if crosses were drilled in just for the sake of it, with no Indian player present near the face of the opposition goal or even trying to anticipate to tap it home.
Danish Mujtaba is another overrated player who messed it up in crucial times. In fact, most of these players committed errors, which either allowed the opposition to mount a counter-attack, resulting in goals or caught our backline napping.
Every major tourney disaster for the Indian hockey team is accompanied by the axing of a coach. For God’s sake, one hopes this is not the case this time around.
Michael Nobbs has been hired for a period of five years and he should be allowed to serve his coaching tenure so that he can sow the seeds that can transform India into a world-beater.
Indian hockey can take heart from the way some of the Australians have transformed the fortunes of several international teams. Former Australian star forward Mark Hager, who took over as coach of the New Zealand’s women’s team in 2009, propelled them to a semifinal berth at the 2012 Olympics – the same Black Sticks who were languishing outside the top nine not so long ago.
Another former Australian Olympian Colin Batch has also turned around the fortunes of Belgium’s men’s hockey team. Batch has been highly credited for the manner in which the Red Lions finished fifth at the London Olympics after going into the mega event with a world ranking of 11.
Surely, it is time for Indian hockey to do some serious soul-searching and not look for scapegoats. Let’s make a beginning as Indian hockey cannot go any worse than this!
Indian hockey has committed big mistake by making Ric Charlesworth to leave country, and bigger mistake by not giving enough time to Jose Brasa, now it should not be repeated. Though Michael Nobbs is also responsible for poor performance of India in London Olympics, he should be provided with free hands to choose players from not only the ones Hockey India suggest but also the players who played in WSH, rather he should demand for it.