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Indian Men’s Hockey Still in Bronze Age, Women on Cusp of History at Asian Games

Indian men’s hockey team’s poor game management cost it the semifinal against Malaysia, while the Rani Rampal-led women’s side will play Japan for the Asian Games gold medal and Olympic qualification
Indian men's hockey team Asian Games

Following the shootout loss against Malaysia in the semfinal, the Indian men’s hockey team will play against Pakistan in the bronze play-off with nothing but a face-saving medal to fight for (Pic: Twitter, Asian Games).

Seven and six! Those two numbers will forever symbolise the Indian men’s hockey team’s 2018 Asian Games campaign.

They scored 76 goals in five group games at the Games in Jakarta. A record. Then, they lost 7-6 to Malaysia in the semifinal shootout to consign themselves to a bronze medal play-off — and, more importantly, a longer path to Olympic qualification.

Pick the pair of numbers you would rather remember.

Regardless of your choice, in the year to come before the Tokyo Olympics, it is fair to say that the team, the coaches and the administration will rue this missed chance. They now have to negotiate a long and arduous qualification process and they have nothing and no one to blame for this but bad game management.

The old sporting cliche of ‘attacks win matches, defence wins titles’ would be a perfect fit here. With all the board rocking they were doing up front, everyone, it seems, ignored the gaping holes at the back. Even against South Korea (their first real test before the semifinal on August 30), they were bailed out by PR Sreejesh several times, and conceded three goals which, if not soft, were definitely avoidable. Two penalty corners and one counter attack.

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Against Malaysia, it was a penalty corner and a counter attack. While the late penalty corner was, if not exquisite, definitely deserved — and also a ghost of Asian Games past — it is the first equalizer, scored by Faizal Sarri, that rankles. The questions pile up. Where was India’s defence? Why were there no bodies being put on the line?  How about a sly cynical foul? What does midfield mean?

The big question: How were the Malaysians allowed — from an India penalty corner — enough space to carve through and find the goal in three simple passes? The goal was beautiful in its simplicity, but also absurd in the amateur nature of its inception. At the Hockey India Junior Nationals, these goals are scored by the dozen. At the international level…

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The second indictment of the team is its tremendously haphazard game management in the closing stages, a weakness the side is yet sort out in important matches. In the crucial moments, at various times over the past few years, individuals have lost their head, and the collective its shape.

In 2016, in the final of the Champions Trophy against India, there was a 13 minute passage of play when Australia were outnumbered by the Indians on the field (two of their players served overlapping five minute suspensions). In that period, the Australians immediately hit the brakes, adopted the half press and wasted as much time on and off the ball as acceptable. They held on for a draw and beat India in the shootout.

Against Malaysia, India went down to nine men (the merits of Sardar Singh’s foul at the end of the third quarter is a thesis study in itself) and seemed to have learnt their lessons from the Aussies. They defended hard, smart and strong. And then, when they had XI on the field, with a little over two minutes to play, they gave up that thought process. Everyone crowded the man with the ball in the circle, which means the Malaysians had more legs to aim at, and they scored from the resulting PC.

Regardless of the controversy that will undoubtedly surround Manpreet Singh’s opening attempt in the shootout, this was a chance lost. A chance at history, a chance at an entire year to review, recover and upgrade, and a chance to put the doubters in their place. Now there will be no year of rest. They have to qualify for the Olympics, a complicated process in theory as well as practice.

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With the World Cup scheduled to be held in Bhubaneswar in December, this loss is a setback but also an opportunity to set things right. Chin up, is the apparently the correct expression to use.

Nobody cares about the bronze medal game, but it will be a good indicator of where the players’ heads are at, and how much perhaps the loss has affected them. The fact that it is against Pakistan shouldn’t matter. But it will!

Women show the way

The Indian women’s hockey team, meanwhile, has a shot at history of its own. Where the men have been slowly hauling their tails up the ladder on the international map, the women seem to have found a quicker shot to the top. Since the last Olympics — where incidentally, they made their first appearance in 36 years — the team has slowly climbed up the ladder, while upgrading and slowly recycling their players. The older lot replaced by a younger generation stepping in without a glitch in transmission.

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In the goal glut that has been the men’s campaign, the women’s own brilliance has been somewhat overshadowed. They scored 38 goals in the group stage, and eked out a 1-0 against China in the semis to make it to the final for the first time since 1998. They go into the final against Japan as the higher ranked team, but then when have rankings really mattered.

A victory for them will give them an automatic berth in the Olympics — their second in a row, and a first gold medal in the sport at the Asian Games since 1982. With a young team — the captain and ‘senior stalwart’ Rani Rampal is 23 — this is truly an exciting time for the women’s game in India.

Sjoerd Marijne may not drill his wards in the tantalising attacking hockey that the sub-continental soul demands, but he has drilled into them the idea of a collective shape, and discipline beyond measure. It is boring and dated as far as the men’s game is concerned, but with the women it works just fine. This is something that serves them well even when they are up against it, or playing below their own best.

If the past is an indicator and motivator, India can look back to their 4-1 victory over Japan a few months back at the Asian Champions Trophy. If tactical match-ups inspire confidence then India could not have asked for more obliging opponents. Through the tournament they have played against teams willing to sit deep, adopting the half press and using counter attacks as a means of relief.

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Japan will not do so. They like playing attacking hockey, use the wings freely and force the pace of the game. While this opens up the game for India, it also means they will not be controlling the space in the middle for sustained periods of time.

The benefits of youth are many, but they come at the cost of experience and temperament. It must be remembered that none of these players have ever played such a high-stakes game. This guarantees them a second successive Olympics, and a gold medal at the continental event after 36 years. Japan, as hosts, have already qualified for the Olympics. So, technically, play they will the final without pressure and that has done wonders for them.

A moment must be taken here to truly appreciate what Japan have done. Both their hockey teams have made it to the finals. No one would have predicted that. When the men were beaten 8-0 by India, red flags were surely raised. Needlessly, because on the evidence, they have a better sense of when to arrive than anyone else on the subcontinent. They also know how to defend narrow leads. The AHF’s expansion project has surely been redeemed.

The two teams that have scored the most goals at the Asian Games are out. But the fans will also get what they want: an India-Pakistan men’s hockey clash. And a chance to save face.

In the movie Moneyball, the Oakland Athletics CEO says “I’m not in it for the records, I’ll tell you that… if we don’t win the last game of the series, they will dismiss us…”

The last game will be for bronze. How the mighty have fallen!

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