Bhubaneswar: For very long, Indian hockey’s story has been that of ifs and buts. They take part in major tournaments, play against the best of teams throughout the year, have the best of tactical and scientific inputs but despite some good results, the end outcome, almost always, ends in ifs and buts.
If only the players could have showed more intensity, if only the umpires could have ruled in our favour, if only and the list goes on… When it isn’t about the ifs, the buts became pre-dominant.
On Thursday, December 13 at the jam-packed Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, India were 60 minutes away from turning those ifs and buts into a tale of certainty. A place where they had the chance to turn around their history and add a new chapter to it.
The World No. 5 team were playing the fourth-ranked Dutch and at stake was a place in the semi-finals of the Hockey World Cup – a territory they last stepped into 43 years ago.
The stage was set, and so were the players and the roaring crowd. In their first three matches, India had beaten South Africa 5-0, held Belgium 2-2 and walloped Canada 5-1. But there had been a drop in intensity during all of those matches where at times, India had not looked sharp enough. They had dominated, had showcased some beautiful moves and delightful defending but they still haven’t been up to the mark.
Against the mighty Holland, they knew it would require every inch of their energy and impeccable planning to find their place into the last four stage of the World Cup at home. And they began in exactly that manner.
Twelve minutes into the match, experienced striker Akashdeep Singh pounced on a rebound -- drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh’s shot off a penalty corner was well saved by the Dutch defenders – and the senior pro fired into the roof of the net with a reverse hit, evoking huge celebrations in the Indian dugout and the stands.
It was all going to plan. India, so far, had dictated the pace of the quarter-final and were playing compact hockey. Holland took their time to settle and tried to find their way through aerial balls and counter-attacks but met with a strong defence. The home defenders, Surender Kumar in particular, were the highlight of the match soaking in the pressure and clearing almost everything that came their way.
The Dutch though struck back three minutes later through an opportunistic touch by Theirry Brinkman who latched on a cross from Mirco Pruijser to find his way past India goalkeeper Sreejesh P.R.
With five circle entries each and almost equal percentage of ball possession, the teams went into the first quarter break at 1-1. It was still anybody’s game.
The second quarter too went India way, who by now looked in control. The hosts were quick off their feet and made the Dutch cover up the yards, playing a fast-paced game.
Manpreet Singh, in the centre, was very impactful and held the midfield on his own cutting out the Dutch players through his variations and multi-dimensional skills. The defenders too backed up the skipper and the lack of space made the Dutch desperate.
That Manpreet – who models his game on football superstars David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo – was first substituted after 19 minutes of the match says a lot about his impact on the game and how much the team relies on him. It was 1-1 as the teams went into the half time break.
Make or break
A team’s ability to make or break in such scenarios often relies on how effectively they change tactics and come out with a Plan B. And that is where the Dutch outplayed, out-thought and outclassed India on the day. It was what transpired in that 10-minute break in the Dutch dressing room that decided the outcome of this crucial match. Holland coach Max Caldas, a man who can charm his way through his flashing smile and calm demeanour, directed his boys to hold the ball a bit more and make India chase the game. He knew India enjoyed a fast-paced game and were looking to make inroads by hitting the balls into the circle and trying to get an edge off it, and Caldas made sure the pattern was broken.
“The first half we played a running game, we wanted to play a passing game. We didn't concede (sacrifice) on our speed of the game, but the way we went about it, hold the ball and make them chase the game,” explained Caldas after the match.
India on back foot
Seven minutes into the third quarter, the picture was crystal clear. India were now left to play catch up as Holland relied on one-touch passes. There was a spell in which the last edition’s silver medallists earned three penalty corners and found their way into the Indian circle at will.
It required Harendra to pull out his Plan B at this stage. His midfielders, except for Manpreet, had been rendered ineffective by the change in tactics by the Dutch who were now relying on one-touch passes and opening up the space in the middle. The forwards too found it difficult to break past the Dutch defence and began to commit errors. In this quarter, India had only two circle entries opposed to the six by Holland, even though the hosts were still well into the game.
“India they try to hit the ball in the circle often but if we defend those situations properly, I think you get a big chunk of their game out of the equation. And this is what we did,” said Caldas.
With just 15 minutes left on the clock, it was clear the match was going Holland’s way. It had now become a battle of the tactics.
The ifs and buts were in play again… Perhaps, Harendra could have pushed newbie Hardik Singh further upfront, if only Amit Rohidas had not tackled a Dutch player and earned that yellow card that reduced India to 10 men in the 53rd minute, if only the Bhubaneswar crowd — that has a tendency to go drop-dead silent when India are on the back foot — kept egging on the home boys and motivated them, if only the hosts had not conceded that penalty corner in the 50th minute that led to a goal, or what if the forwards would not have missed all those chances.
There were many ifs and buts again but by now, India should know that matches are not won on ifs and buts. It required a lot more from them once the Dutch were ahead — Mink van der Weerden converted a penalty corner in the 50th minute — and the clock was ticking. India could never make a comeback from this stage.
“The better team on the day won,” summed up Caldas in simple words after the 2-1 win that pitted them against Australia in the semi-final.
Umpiring issues or lost opportunity?
India coach Harendra Singh blamed the umpires for their loss saying the yellow card shown to Rohidas was harsh but if anything, the hosts know their best wasn’t good enough on the day.
In the various parameters that separate a winning team from the ones almost there, India had lost to their opponents on many counts.
India are fit and among the fast-rising teams in world hockey — to be fair, on the day they gave a good account of themselves against Holland — but the men in blue are yet to develop big match temperament. If there is one thing that they still don’t know, it is how to win matches on the big stage. When pressed, they commit silly mistakes and lose composure. The calm heads give way to jittery players who let go of the structure and plan.
An error-prone India were punished by Malaysia in the semi-finals of the Asian Games in Jakarta earlier this year. The World Cup quarter-final against Holland was yet another occasion when what went inside the head would have perhaps mattered more than skills and experience combined, but minor errors and silly mistakes meant the opportunity was lost.
The think-tank too needs to assess and take the blame for not coming up with different tactics when situations changed during the match.
“We had the chances. We had a couple of open chances,” said Harendra. “We missed, so did Holland. That was because both teams were playing high-tempo game. Sometimes your position is not there, or your stick is not there (in the right place). The way the boys fought without the goalkeeper, in front of you I want to salute my players.”
Caldas had a different view to it.
“The team with most chances wins the game. We won the game. That's the bottom line. In the end, the umpires didn’t play the game. We review games, not umpires. We review our own performance.
“It happened at the Champions Trophy when the call went against us and we had a draw against India. Umpires do their job. It’s a very fast-paced game.
“Just play the game. I know it’s going to be a battle. Sometimes we win, you lose, we are happy the way we could change things and keep our cool.
‘You might have’, ‘You should have', ‘You could have’ do not exit,” the Dutch coach explained.
True, the ifs and buts do not exist at this level.
If the World Cup is a lesson, India will have to learn how to win on the big stage. Period.