A bronze to light up the Rio path

A bronze to light up the Rio path

Hockey : Men's team raised the spirits with a superb late charge

A bronze to light up the Rio path

When you’ve hit rock-bottom, the only way to go is to rise up. The Indian hockey did just that in 2015, digging itself from the abyss in determined fashion, showing there is life still in a sport that had suffered plenty of bruises.

The senior men’s team captured a surprise bronze medal in the World League Final at Raipur, ending a pain-staking 33-year wait for a global international medal while the female counterparts earned the right to compete in the Rio Olympics next year, only the second time they would be competing in the big bash. The junior men’s team gave an indication of the talent that is waiting to come through by clinching the Junior Asia Cup, thrashing arch-rivals Pakistan 6-2 in an extremely lop-sided final.

Hockey India hired Paul van Ass as the chief coach of the men’s team in a bid to give the Dutchman enough time to prepare the squad for the Rio Olympics and while he began well, his acrimonious exit just five months into the job left a sour taste in the mouth.

Under Van Ass’ guidance, the Indians finished third in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup before ending fourth in the Hockey World League Semifinals at Antwerp, Belgium. While that may be a decent achievement considering the country’s slide over the last few decades, an on-field argument with HI secretary-general Narinder Batra cost the Dutchman his job.

Accusations flew thick and fast and Van Ass decided not to return, leaving India without a coach in July, with just about one year left for the all-important Rio Games. As is the case always, the players suffered the most, their efforts in adjusting to a third regime in three years going down the drain.

Roelant Oltmans, who has been serving as the High Performance Director since October 2013 and deputising as coach when Michael Nobbs and Terry Walsh got the sack during the last two years, was handed the reins again and the team surprised everyone with their surge towards the end of the season.

They blew hot and cold during the league phase of the Hockey World League Final but sprang to life in the knock-outs to take everyone by surprise. They beat an experimental Great Britain 2-1 in the quarterfinal before going down 1-0 to the methodical Belgians in a well fought semifinal. The bronze medal match was a cracking affair, the Indians playing some breath-taking hockey to hold the mighty Netherlands 5-5 and then eking out a 3-2 victory in penalty shoot-out.

That match showed how determined this team is in challenging the modern day powerhouses. It also gave them a strong base to work upon as they enter a crucial year.
The junior men’s team, apart from triumphing in the Asia Cup, also won a silver medal at the Sultan of Johor Cup, going down via penalties to Great Britain. The juniors, who have a World Cup next December at home, have been playing some good hockey with some promising names ready to take wings.

The women, for whom there wasn’t as much action as compared to the men, finished fifth in the World League Semifinal at Antwerp. That performance helped them secure the tickets to the Rio Olympics, sparking a wave of euphoria among the hockey aficionados. This will be the second time after the 1980 Moscow Games that the women’s team will be seen competing at the Olympics.

Overall, Indian hockey enjoyed a fruitful year, but there is still plenty of repair work to be done.

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