HWL bronze for seniors, Asia Cup for juniors - Indian hockey looking up

Image credit: Getty Images.

Image credit: Getty Images.

The first team to qualify for the 2016 Olympics is slowly gathering ammo for a full-blooded effort in Rio, and en route proving that the Asian Games gold was no fluke.

The first team to qualify for the 2016 Olympics is slowly gathering ammo for a full-blooded effort in Rio, and en route proving that the Asian Games gold was no fluke.

The bronze at the Hockey World League (HWL) Final in Raipur may have come after a few tumbles on the way, but it brings much glee to know that India held Olympic champions Germany to a draw before beating World No. 2 Netherlands to finish on the podium.

The defeat against Argentina in the tournament opener still rankles, though, especially considering it came at the back of a commendable effort in the three-Test series against eventual HWL champions Australia.

India rallied to beat the world champions and No. 1-ranked Aussies in the final game of the pre-HWL series, after losing one and drawing the other. To go down to Argentina 0-3 after that would always hurt.

India have endured a tough journey from No. 11 to No. 6, and it's from here that the climb becomes steep and hard. The promise is there, as India showed in the bronze-medal playoff the other day.

The Netherlands had beaten the hosts 3-1 in the pool stage. That monkey was still riding on India's back, but Sardar Singh's boys got the ape off in style – erasing a 0-2 deficit to lead 5-3 before conceding two late goals and provide the Dutch team with a comeback window.

But PR Sreejesh held his nerve between the post and Rupinderpal Singh converted a lucky stroke to set off wild celebrations in Raipur.

What such slips from 5-3 up unfortunately also mean is that it's difficult to deny observations like the one made by World Cup winner Ajit Pal Singh: "Two Indian teams played the tournament – one in the league stage and the other in the knockouts."

But a promise to improve on consistency is extended by India juniors – the current Asian champions.

Players of the calibre of India junior captain Harjeet Singh and drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh are among a thick supply of talented youngsters looking to follow in the footsteps of Manpreet Singh, who is one of the latest to come through those ranks and cement his place in the senior team.

Harmanpreet is ferocious on the short corner – so much so that 12 of his staggering 14 goals in the Asia Cup in Malaysia came off penalty corners.

India's ex-coach Michael Nobbs is thus "excited" about India's prospects and can't wait to watch his former wards play at the Olympics next year. The Australian, however, urges not to "overreact" on winning the HWL bronze.

"This is great result and it shows that the hard work the team has done since the last Olympics is slowly paying off," Nobbs told <i>IBNLive<i> from his home in Canberra.

"I am very excited to see how the team will go at the next Olympics. India still needs to be careful of overreacting as none of the top teams had sent their best [squad for the HWL Final] and by the time the Rio Olympics comes around, all teams will be quite a bit stronger. But certainly celebrate now as it [HWL bronze] is a milestone."

Nobbs was equally effusive in his praise of the junior Indian team and its coach Harendra Singh.

"The junior team is the future of Indian hockey; and after the Rio Olympics, when a number of senior players will retire, I believe that is when Indian hockey will be back as a powerhouse of world hockey," he added.

Nobbs even went to the extent of predicting that Harendra may go on to assume the coaching role with the senior squad post Rio Games.

"They [junior team] have had quite a successful last two years. That shows they are a very good team, ably led by Harendra Singh who is fast establishing his credentials as a proven coach who should be looking for the top job after the Olympics," the 1984 Olympian said.

But despite a merry-go-round of coaches, including Nobbs himself, in the last five years, some of the shortcomings plaguing Indian hockey refuse to leave the team – primarily poor trapping, sloppy finishing and conceding goals in dying minutes.

After Paul van Ass's ignominious exit earlier this year, Hockey India's (HI) High Performance Director, Roelant Oltmans, was asked to double up as chief coach until the 2016 Olympics.

As per Nobbs, Oltmans continues to correct those frustrating errors but what's good news for India is that the junior team is free of those issues.

"Yes, the senior team still struggles, especially in deep attacking areas; and when pressed in defence, they make simple marking errors. The junior team  coming through does’t seem to have this problem.

"Roelant is a very experienced coach and as the results show the team is working to his plans. I can see during TV broadcasts he is showing signs of frustration of the same constant errors which the team needs to work hard on before the Olympics. To quote him 'I am not sure which Indian team is coming out to play each day'. Consistency will be the key to the team achieving its top performance," the Australian commented, before crediting HI President Narinder Batra's role in the upswing.

"The vision Dr. Narinder Batra had to revive hockey in India will come to fruition," the 61-year-old said.

On a concluding note, what a medal at a major event – that too after 33 years – hosted by small centres like Raipur will do is win the game some young fans and ignite renewed hopes in old ones. Our hockey needs that as much as India’s consistency on the field.