Cracking under pressure

Cracking under  pressure

The most candid admission in the aftermath of India’s eighth-place finish at the World Cup hockey came from the team’s captain.  “You are talking of progress. If you look at it, we won one match in the last World Cup and we won one match here. So where is the progress?” asked Rajpal Singh after his team had suffered their fourth loss in the tournament to allow Argentina to take the seventh place.
In terms of wins, surely there was no progress for India in the New Delhi bash. But in the overall standings, the team did move up by three places – they were 11th in 2006 while their world ranking is 12.

For a country eternally in the grip of those nostalgic times when we won Olympic gold medals with monotonous regularity, these statistics might be bitter to swallow. But that is the reality. India are far from being the champions they once were and they belong in the middle rungs now.

“The way we are playing now, we are not a top-five team,” said India’s Spanish coach Jose Brasa, who has always urged the fans, media and the players to keep their feet on the ground and not to peg expectations at a high level. “We are in the 5-8 bracket and we have a long way to go. We have only started the process; there is plenty of hard work to be done.”

Ahead of the tournament, just like Brasa, fans and experts were very much aware where the team stood but the fact that the tournament was being played at home brought in extra expectations. After a spectacular win against Pakistan – a team that eventually finished last – India went rapidly downhill with Australia, Spain and England ruthlessly exposing the host nation’s weaknesses.

Even as their campaign took a predictable, familiar course, Brasa kept harping on the positives, on the improvement the team had made.

 Indeed, there were positives as the players tried to shed their old ways of hanging on to the ball too much. There was improvement in passing and marking, with the players falling back well to assist the defence but once they came under pressure, instinctively, they went back to the old methods, to end up easy meat for their rivals. The pace and power at the top was too hot for the Indians.

It didn’t take an expert to put the finger on India’s main problem but Brasa waited till the last game before admitting that the flaws lay in the defence. “We conceded more goals than any other team barring Canada and South Africa. We certainly need to improve our defence,” said Brasa, after his team let in a whopping 21 goals in just six matches.

Sandeep Singh and Dhananjay Mahadik rarely got things right. Their positioning, tackling and clearances left a lot to be desired while the little Bharat Chikkara, after doing exceptionally well against Rehan Butt in the game against Pakistan, found that size does matter in the international game.

Sandeep hung on to his place thanks to his ability in short corners but even here, he came up short. It was clear the rivals had sorted out his ways and it was surprising that no one in the team think-tank bothered to try out variations. “We believe in Sandeep. We gave him chance as he is the best. He can be a top drag-flicker as well as a top defender. He has shown he has it in him to do well,” said Brasa in defence of Sandeep.

Upfront, the form of Prabhjot Singh and Deepak Thakur’s lack of fitness limited India’s options. Prabhjot, who was in the FIH World XI last year, scored just one goal and rarely managed to break through the defences while Thakur’s selection itself should come under question after Brasa said he had not recovered fully from last year’s knee surgery.

“We have to look at other players,” admitted Brasa. “We did try out some junior players but they were not mature enough in their play to take the place of senior players.”

To Brasa’s defence, it must be said that he didn’t get much time to implement his plans. The Spaniard is clear in his thinking and he has only one solution for India’s problems. “We need to play consistently against the top teams, only then can we improve. We need to train hard and then go on tours,” said Brasa. “Proper training and competition against tough opposition is the only way forward.”

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