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Hockey India Continues Illogical Tinkering With Men’s Side

With less than two months to go for the FIH Men’s World Cup in Bhubaneswar, Hockey India announces team for the Asian Champions Trophy, replacing seven players including top scorer Rupinder Pal Singh from the side which played in the Asian Games.
Harmanpreet Singh Indian hockey team

Harmanpreet Singh has been the only constant face in defense for the Indian hockey team in the last year or so, with constant shuffling of players leaving the back line unsettled (Pic: Hockey India)

Indian hockey team’s choking streak continued at the Asian Games, and the frustrating consistency of failure at important stages of tournaments has a direct correlation with how Hockey India goes about setting things straight by unsettling them further.

It is tough to remember an important game this century when the team hasn’t had a meltdown in the dying moments of the match. Let’s draw the list at the Olympics: Sydney 2000, against Poland in the 69th minute;  Athens 2004, against Argentina in the 69th minute; London 2012, against South Africa in the 65th minute; Rio 2016, against Canada in the 52nd minute.

This year, at the Asian Games, they fell to Malaysia in the semifinals. Go deeper, and Malaysia will turn up again, at the Asian Games in 2010. Even in landmark victories, the shadow of choking looms.

When India won their first global medal in 33 years at the 2015 Hockey World League in Chhattisgarh, they did so via a shootout against the Netherlands. It is easy to forget the game that went to the shootout (actually it isn’t. A classic 5-5 is never forgettable). India were leading 5-3 with two minutes of the match left. Everyone was celebrating when the Netherlands equalised and took the game to a shootout.

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Hockey India’s method to move on from said chokes is to chop and change the squad for the next outing. The thinktank prefers the maxim of discard and forget. Till next time...

The Indian team’s latest squad for the Asian Champions Trophy follows the trend. Several regulars have been dropped, captains have been chopped, seniors have been ‘rested’ and juniors have been wasted. With another continental tournament on the horizon — the Asian Champions Trophy starts on October 18 — the management has shuffled the cards from the Asian Games deck.

Of the seven changes in the squad, two have been particularly eye catching. Senior players SV Sunil and Rupinder Pal Singh have been dropped. The word used though, is a more diplomatic, ‘rested’ — at least in the case of Sunil. In the case of the winger perhaps the exclusion has a dual purpose. Over the past year, he has been India’s most creative player, and his absence may actually help unearth others to shoulder the burden. Additionally, Sunil was the man who missed in the shootout (twice) as India lost to Malaysia. Maybe time on the sidelines will clear his brain, recharge the muscles and renew vigour.

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On the other hand, Rupinder Pal has been dropped due to poor performances in the Asian Games (the defender was India’s highest scorer in the continental event). By dropping him, the new squad have put themselves in a position where they have only two drag-flickers in the squad (Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar). Two youngsters — regardless of their experience — no less.

Of the other notable absentees, Sardar Singh has retired, Birender Lakra is injured, and youngsters Simranjeet Singh, Vivek Sagar Prasad and Amit Rohidas have all been dropped.

Most international teams that are in the final phase of preparations for the FIH World Cup would have — with two months remaining — finalised a 20-man squad as a shortlist for the tournament. India, with a core group that consists of 30 at any given time, should have, at the very least, put the pin down on their regulars.

Not so. The defenders are still a variable with Harmanpreet Singh, a 22-year-old, the constant. India’s Asian Champions Trophy’s defensive line will be completely different from the Asian Games.

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It is understandable from an administrative point of view that someone who isn’t accepting of failure, and, in case of failure, ring in changes. But in the case of Hockey India, the wheel spins faster than the pistons can churn.

In the larger scheme of things, the Asian Champions Trophy is a minor event. India are defending champions and have won the last two editions. The tournament gives everyone a chance to get back their confidence playing against the same opponents they either thrashed or lost disappointingly to in Jakarta.

One school of thought may have actually advocated sending the same team as the Asian Games, to clean up the mess. A second suggests resting some players may be good from a long-term perspective. Nothing calls for this mixture though.

The greatest rollercoaster ride has been reserved for the captain’s armband. After the medal-less Commonwealth Games earlier this year, Manpreet Singh (captain at the time) was demoted to a squad player, as Hockey India handed the reins back to PR Sreejesh. Under Sreejesh’s captaincy India won silver at the Champions Trophy in Breda. He was rewarded with a second tournament at the helm.

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But the honchos didn’t say it so directly. At the time, Hockey India General Secretary insisted that the idea of reinstating Sreejesh was a long-term plan “keeping in mind the World Cup in December, and stabilising the team”.

Two tournaments in, the stability has gone out of the window. Manpreet Singh, a recent winner of the Arjuna award, has been reinstated as captain. Loss brings in changes, rather than accountability. Success is a byproduct of faith. Curiously enough, the vice captain is a constant in this equation — Chinglensana Singh. Imagine his disappointment. Forever the bridesmaid, never the bride.

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