Asia Cup Hockey: No gold but key gains for India
The defeat in the Asia Cup final may be disappointing but it's not disheartening, considering the gains India made from the tournament.
The Asia Cup gold slipped out of hand and the status of India's World Cup ticket remained 'wait-listed'. But it tells nothing about the moral fibre a young, inexperienced Indian team exhibited in a heart-warming performance over the last seven days.
No one gave India a chance to reach the final. There were question marks over the defence, and the forward-line lacked meat. SV Sunil, Danish Mujtaba and Gurwinder Singh Chandi were all out injured. The coaching unit was overhauled. A new selection panel was making its debut. But after winning four of five matches in the Asia Cup and putting up a spirited show in the final, things seem to have fallen in place for India.
But some may still debate if that's the case. There may be arguments that for a sport struggling to garner support back home, winning the Asia Cup was critical. A string of wins is the only way for Indian hockey to win its followers back. But if you look at the larger picture, the defeat in the Asia Cup final may be disappointing but it's not disheartening. Here's why:
Before looking at the department-wise benefits coming India's way, it's important to deconstruct the narrow 3-4 loss in the final against South Korea. What should lift the spirits of Indian hockey is the gutsy play by India in the second half. They were down 0-2 but rallied twice to first make it 2-2 and then 3-3. Seldom before in the last decade have we seen an Indian team showing such self-belief. The shoulders didn't drop, the forwards didn't panic and the players were playing for each other.
Yes they may have been a little relaxed having 'virtually' qualified for the World Cup, but that doesn't devalue the Asia Cup trophy. There was pressure, and it has to be admitted that this Indian team, unlike many before them, performed well under that pressure.
Hockey India's decision to elevate PR Sreejesh as vice-captain and appoint South Africa's Dave Staniforth as the goalkeeping coach reaped huge benefits. Sreejesh took his game to another level in this tournament to cement his place as India's No. 1 custodian.
The 'Goalkeeper of the Tournament' was impregnable in the league match against South Korea, and until the semi-finals, he only let one ball cross the goal-line. From here, with Staniforth's mentoring, Sreejesh can only get better. But the South African will also be expected to build the bench strength of Indian 'keepers leading up to the World Cup next year.
The 'back' bone
Will India's defence hold in Ipoh? The answer to that question held the key to India's success. Goals against minnows Oman and Bangladesh would have embarrassed India, but VR Raghunath and Rupinderpal Singh have seemingly emerged as the long-term solution to India's defensive woes.
While their penalty-corner conversion was stupendous, their defensive skills were the most encouraging. India have had drag-flickers with the likes of Jugraj Singh and Sandeep Singh in the past, but what they have never found since Pargat Singh's retirement is a world class defender. Still early days for Raghu and Rupinder to be compared to Pargat, but signs are promising.
Their defensive skills in the league match against South Korea helped India keep a clean sheet in a 2-0 victory. Thus, they would be the most disappointed Indians losing the final to the same team. They shared 12 (six each) of the 22 goals India scored in the tournament, which explains their prowess with drag flicks. But as Pargat said, now that they have proved themselves in Asia, their real test will come against the Europeans and Australians, against whom India's defence has always crumbled.
Raghunath's all-round effort was recognised by the Asian Hockey Federation that named him the 'Player of the Tournament'.
The average age of the India squad selected for the Asia Cup was 23, with two debutants - strikers Ramandeep Singh and Nikin Thimmaiah - in the touring party. Compared to the experienced trio of Shivender Singh, Tushar Khandker and SV Sunil, names like Mandeep Singh, Malak Singh, Manpreet Singh, Nithin Thimmaiah and Nikkin Thimmaiah seemed harmless. But those who thought so were badly mistaken.
Mandeep hushed that criticism and enhanced his ever-growing reputation as a striker with a hat-trick in the opening match against Oman. The 18-year-old combined well with Ramandeep, who scored on his debut against Oman. Mandeep went on to add three more goals to his name to end up as the joint second top-scorer along with Raghu, Rupinder and Pakistan captain Mohammad Imran.
South Korea's Jang Jong Hyun led the goal-scoring table with eight goals. Malak and Nikkin scored two goals while Uthappa had one to his name.
Roelant Oltmans is not new on the coaching couch. In fact, he is a legend at that - known for guiding the Dutch men's team to World Cup and Olympics success. But for India, he is only an interim arrangement as of now - unless Hockey India decides to add coaching to his current job description of High Performance Director after the good show in Ipoh.
Oltmans was asked to take over as coach after Michael Nobbs left, but considering the little time he got to prepare the team for Asia Cup, the Dutchman has done a good job. Quick release and one-touch hockey was a welcome change one saw to India's approach. None of the players were holding onto the ball for long, which resulted in 11 field goals.
The way Oltmans got the team to re-strategise and stage a comeback in the second half of the final was also very encouraging. The midfield looked more organised and the forwards created space to cut through defenders. Such tactics allowed India to storm back into the match.
But HI won't be in any mood to jump the gun on the coaching front, considering their last three foreign appointments were asked to leave even before completing their terms.