Finding water in desert

Looking back Hockey: Asiad gold provided a rare high for India but trouble lurked round the corner

Finding water in desert

Indian hockey celebrated a rare prosperous year, notching up some once-in-a-generation wins, but the sport generated its familiar share of controversies too.

While the icing on the cake was the Asian Games gold -- the first yellow metal at the Continental extravaganza in 16 years -- the fall-out between coach Terry Walsh, the architect of the success, and Hockey India left a bitter taste in the mouth towards the end of the year.

India started the hectic season on a rather sedate note, finishing sixth in the World League Finals in New Delhi. Considered as a prelude to the World Cup in May-June, the Indians struggled against the top teams of the world, failing to win a group match and then receiving a 7-2 battering from Australia before settling for sixth place among eight participating teams.

They then embarked on a tour to Europe where they lost to both Belgium and Netherlands, managing to score wins over just club teams.

Having slid down the world rankings and results largely ordinary over the last decade, they travelled to The Hague for the World Cup with no major hopes. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t cause any big upsets, once again coming a cropper against the best in the world to eventually end ninth.

Despite their poor finish, they showed flashes of brilliance in the tournament, the defensive problems towards the end costing them a chance to sign off much higher.

The team, however, slowly started to gel together in July. Still coming to terms with Walsh’s methods, they began to produce the results that matter. They surprised everyone with a silver medal finish at the Commonwealth Games, losing to World Champions Australia in a closely-fought final.

That medal acted as a catalyst for a memorable Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. Knowing a gold will not only seal their trip to the Rio Olympics but provide the ailing sport a much-needed boost, the Indians fought like warriors to down Pakistan in a tense final.

While the team deserved plenty of credit for that success, the hero on that magical night was goalkeeper PR Sreejesh. In stunning form throughout the tournament, the Indian custodian effected some stunning saves in the shoot-out as an entire nation savoured a rare medal in a major event with great delight.

Just when things started to look bright, darkness enveloped the sport again. With Hockey India not adhering to his demands of a having a free hand on a few issues, Walsh chose not to renew his contract at the end of November. Hockey India too stressed they were not in favour of bringing back Walsh.

During the entire wrangling phase, the Indians, with Walsh in charge, boarded the flight for a short ‘Test’ series against a second-string Australia which they won 3-1.

The CWG and Asian Games successes raised hopes of something spectacular from the Indian team at the Champions Trophy in Bhubaneswar despite having won just a sole bronze in 34 editions of the elite event.

With High Performance Director Roelant Oltmans back in charge, the Indians started poorly but signed off the group phase on thumping note with a first win in 18 years over powerhouses the Netherlands.

Riding on that euphoria, they then swept aside Belgium in the quarterfinals but their customary late slippages came to haunt in them in bruising fashion as Pakistan struck with 90 seconds left on the clock to seal a hard-fought 4-3 semifinal win.

That tournament pretty much summed India’s performance over the year: brilliant one day but ordinary another with the familiar problem of failing to close out tight matches costing them a medal.
While the men at least brought home silverware, nothing much can be said about the eves. They lost all their matches to end up with the wooden spoon in the Champions Challenge I tournament, a bronze at the Asian Games being a mere balm.

The juniors fared well in the limited opportunities that came their way. They successfully retained the Sultan of Johor Cup where they recorded some impressive wins before enjoying a good outing during their tour Down Under.

As a welcome boost, the national federation also introduced the ‘Hockey India Annual Awards’ where the Player of Year (both men and women) picked up Rs 25 lakh each.
As compared to the previous years, this season could be counted as a success. But, if the performance against the biggies is taken into account, the team has plenty of catching up to do.

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