Ipoh: Had someone told the Indian hockey team at the departure lounge of the Delhi airport that the team will return with a bronze, the players wouldn't have been really disappointed. But from that day to now, a lot has happened that would have left the Indians disappointed with their third-place finish at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, which concluded on Saturday.
A squad comprising young legs, including three debutants, and old guards playing for their places would have happily taken a podium finish. But then, had the Indians played to the potential they showed in some of the earlier games, it could well have been India and not Great Britain playing the final against Australia.
But the five-time champions went off the boil whenever the situation demanded them to go for broke. It happened against Great Britain, Australia and in the worst possible way against Malaysia. The Britishers were allowed to come back and snatch a 2-2 draw. The 1-0 lead against the Aussie turned into a 1-3 defeat, thanks to a defensive mindset. And Malaysia slammed the door on their Asian neighbours with a 1-0 upset win.
Only New Zealand proved easy meal for the Indians, which they showed in the 3-0 win during league stage and 4-0 drubbing in the playoffs on Saturday, which secured India's bronze. Japan too had almost pulled off an India heist, before India managed a 4-3 win.
The tournament ended with Great Britain's 4-3 win over Australia in the final. The Indian team sat in the stands watching the climax of that game, and their gloomy faces suggested it could have been much better than a bronze.
JUST COULDN'T SCORE IN CRUNCH MOMENTS
Barring Mandeep Singh's hat-trick in the face-saving win over Japan, India failed to lift themselves when the moment arrived. Australia almost snatched the momentum from them to win from behind. Malaysia, who should have been thrashed, managed to check India's scratchy forwards and block every scoring attempt on penalty corners.
Creating chances is fine but to repeatedly not score off them is criminal. "If we look at all the statistics, then almost in every match we have had by far more circle penetrations than our opponents," Oltmans said on Saturday. "We created a lot of goal-scoring opportunities, but the way we finished is not good enough yet. That is something we have to work hard on, (moving) towards major tournaments later this year (Asia Cup and Hockey World League Finals)."
Rupinder Pal Singh's penalty-corner conversions finally saw light of the day against the Black Sticks on Saturday. Out of India's four strikes, he was on the mark twice to take his tournament tally to three goals. But that doesn't curtain out his inefficacy throughout the event.
LONG WAY TO THE TOP
India have travelled a long way to get out of double digits and be No. 6 in FIH rankings. But as they say, the final ascent to summit is the steepest and the hardest.
That India couldn't deliver when it mattered the most is a cause of concern and worry — highlighting the gap that still exists between them and teams like Germany, Holland and Australia.
"I feel you have to be able to cope with that kind of pressure. If you really want to become a team that can compete with the best in the world, then you know you have to score," Oltmans had said after the match against Malaysia, in which India needed to win by a two-goal margin to qualify for the final.
"I am sure Germany would have scored two or maybe three goals, and India doesn't do that. That is still the difference (between us and) top sides in the world. That's where we have to work. We can play fantastic hockey. We have seen it, for instance, in the first half against Australia and in the last quarter against Japan.
“I think we played well against New Zealand and Great Britain. But the moment real pressure is there, then you have to show it," Oltmans said in a no-holds-barred comment.
DEFENCE PUT UP GOOD SHOW
One should give credit where it's due. If Rupinder's dragflicks didn't work, he had his defensive skills well in place. In the absence of VR Raghunath and then later PR Sreejesh, who was ruled out midway due to injury, India needed their senior-most defender to stand up, and he did.
India fortified their defence in a well-planned way as Rupinder guided youngsters Surender Kumar, Gurinder Singh, Pardeep Mor and Harmanpreet Singh.
"If we keep our defensive structure like this and create some more opportunities, then I think the future is bright," Oltmans said.
JITTERY SENIORS, TWO PLAYERS UNDER THE SCANNER
Not long ago SV Sunil was named the Asian Player of the Year, but his performance at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup was way below what you expect of a senior. He celebrated his birthday with a goal on Saturday, which was the only bright spot for him over the past week and a half.
Sardar Singh began the tournament like he has reinvented himself, but the former captain couldn't rise to the occasion in the pressure games against Australia and Malaysia. Manpreet Singh captained in Sreejesh's absence but couldn't leave an impact in the midfield. Akashdeep began well but his form too drifted away deeper into the tournament.
"A couple of players are not able to perform up to our expectations when these tense games are there. But luckily we have some time to improve that," Oltmans said, setting off alarm bells in the dugout.
MANDEEP STOOD OUT
From India, Mandeep scored the most goals (5) and was also the joint top-scorer of the tournament along with Australia's Tom Craig. His best moment under the sun came when he scored a hat-trick against Japan to keep India alive in the tournament.
However, the 22-year-old striker will know that he couldn't produce the goods when his team needed the most. And that's where he will want to improve in run-up to the World Cup next year.
NOTHING NEGATIVE FOR OLTMANS
Oltmans maintained from the start that this tournament is about testing new strategies and combinations, which is what he did until the last game against New Zealand when Harjeet Singh played more in the centre and captain Manpreet in the wings.
The coach said he has all notes from these experiments safely secured in his backpack.
"There is always room for improvement. That is different from negatives. I don't take anything negative out of a tournament, never. I look at what we can improve as a team. That is by far more important. I don't care about negative things. You look at individual players, you look at how you are defensively organised, how you are creating chances, how you are able to execute your gameplans. That is what's important," Oltmans explained.
India's next assignment is the FIH Hockey World League semifinals in London next month, where they will also meet Pakistan. The players will take a one-week break upon return to India on Sunday and then huddle up in the national camp.