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Hockey World Cup 2018: India Make the Right Noises, On and Off the Field

There were a lot of contrasting opinions when India had picked up a fairly young team for the World Cup at home. Hardik Singh had made his international debut at the Asian Champions Trophy last month, Dilpreet Singh has only 10 months of experience of playing international hockey, Nilakanta Sharma and Sumit are unheard names while Simranjeet Singh is still finding his feet in international hockey.

Harpreet Kaur Lamba |

Updated:November 29, 2018, 11:40 AM IST
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Hockey World Cup 2018: India Make the Right Noises, On and Off the Field
Indian team in action. (Facebook/Hockey India)
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At the lunch table a day before India’s opening match of the 2018 Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar, national hockey coach Harendra Singh instructed his boys to go silent.

India’s men’s hockey team are not allowed to use phone at meals, but this instruction was unique. Each player was asked to use sign language if they were to communicate with each other. It could be anything about the day’s training or even a minor thing like passing the salt bottle. The players took time to adapt but were soon communicating with each other with the use of hand signals and facial expressions.

This was one of Harendra’s many experiments and tactics as he wanted his boys to understand signals and develop better communication skills on the field. There are times when instructions from the sidelines or between the players on the pitch get drowned in a sea of high emotions and the cacophony of the 15,000 screaming fans at the Kalinga Stadium.

The 18-member Indian team passed the test on the lunch table and 24 hours later, they passed yet another trial — that of winning the opening encounter against South Africa 5-0 in their Pool C opener to set the ball rolling for the 2018 Men’s Hockey World Cup.

Experts have time and again emphasised on the significance of winning an opening match and taking ahead the confidence into a major tournament. Nerves can often get the better of most players and Harendra knows it too very well. The instructions were clear to his boys as they took field against South Africa: Get three points and keep a clean slate. And his wards came good on both counts.

But before we dwell on India’s victory over South Africa on November 28 — the sixth instance when India won an opening match at a Hockey World Cup in 14 editions — let us turn the clock back a little bit. It is important to remember India’s opening matches at the 2006 Monchengladbach World Cup in Germany and the 2014 World Cup at the Hague in Holland to understand the significance of the day’s victory.

In 2006, India had matched hosts and defending champions Germany in every department and were locked 2-2 till the 68th minute until the nerves got the better of them. Panic hit the Dilip Tirkey-led team in the dying minutes and the plan — which they were following almost perfectly till then — went out of the window. India conceded a late goal for a 2-3 loss.

Cut to 2014. The story was repeated. This time the opponents were Belgium. Yet again, the scoreline was 2-2 and just when it seemed that the teams would take away a point each from their opening encounter, World Cup debutant Mandeep Singh — hit by those nervous jitters combined with inexperience — landed a cross straight into the hands of the Belgians who punished India with a 70th minute goal. It was a 2-3 loss this time, too.

Young team

There were a lot of contrasting opinions when India had picked up a fairly young team for the World Cup at home. Hardik Singh had made his international debut at the Asian Champions Trophy last month, Dilpreet Singh has only 10 months of experience of playing international hockey, Nilakanta Sharma and Sumit are unheard names while Simranjeet Singh is still finding his feet in international hockey.

Indian hockey team. (Facebook/Hockey India) Indian hockey team. (Facebook/Hockey India)

The names these youngsters had replaced were big — the recently-retired Sardar Singh, veteran striker S.V. Sunil and experienced defender Rupinder Pal Singh.
If one was expecting a nervy show from this bunch in the opening match against South Africa, there were none of that. The youngsters followed the plans to a Tee and were methodical in their performance.

True, this South African team had just played nine international matches this year — cash-crunch has hit South Africa hockey hard and the players funded their own trip to India — but they have some experienced players in Austin Smith and captain Timothy Drummond in their ranks.

Yet, the young guns were not awed by the magnitude of the situation. Big stage pressure and the deafening roar of the 15,000 plus spectators can make the best of the players nervous but not this lot. With seven of them as part of the Junior World Cup winning team, handling pressure perhaps came easy to them.

Missed chances

India did not take long to get past South Africa — Mandeep scored off a rebound after India earned a penalty corner in the ninth minute — and even though all the strikers barring Dilpreet got their names on the scoresheet, India would also do well to remember that the victory margin could have been much higher.

Simranjeet scored a brace while link-man Akashdeep Singh and Lalit Upadhyay led the attack but in between there were periods of worry. Like the second and most part of the third quarter when goals dried up and South Africa smelled a chance. They pressed India hard but could not get past the solid home defence with goalkeeper Sreejesh P.R. effecting some good saves and defenders Birendra Lakra and Surender Kumar coming up with neat clearances.

Mandeep celebrates after scoring a goal against South Africa. (Twitter/Hockey India) Mandeep celebrates after scoring a goal against South Africa. (Twitter/Hockey India)

They say that a victory can hide many faults and if one were to examine closely, India’s opening match was also a story of missed chances. Young Nilkanta Sharma faltered in the third quarter when he had only one man to beat while the rest too let go off clear chances on at least four occasions.

South Africa gave India a lot of space. There were gaps in the midfield and defence which India utilised to the full, but a similar luxury wouldn’t come their way against world no. 3 Belgium in their next pool match.

Penalty corner woes

India managed to score off two of the five penalty corners earned against South Africa, but none of them were direct conversions. India had picked up three drag-flickers in Varun Kumar, Harmanpreet Singh and Amit Rohidas but the fact that the trio failed to get going against the 15th-ranked South Africa is a cause of worry.

India could afford such slip-ups against the lower-ranked South African team but a similar performance against Belgium can prove suicidal.

At a time when international matches — and often titles — are decided by how good a team performs in the drag-flick department, India will have to get going in this area.

It was deemed as a bold move by the Indian selectors when they opted for young blood ahead of established names like Rupinder Pal and Sunil, but with far bigger battles ahead it would be interesting to see how Harendra marshals his troops.

Half chances would have to pounced on and the midfield would have to play a greater role to keep the structure compact and moving against teams like Belgium and Canada.
Perhaps, the coach would come up with another strategy at the lunch time as India head into a three-day gap before their next encounter.
| Edited by: Arjit Dabas
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