Bronze a stepping stone as men look for steel

Under a new coach, India still fell short of consistency while the women's team had a heartening Asia Cup triumph

Bronze a stepping stone as men look for steel

Heading into the final part of the season, Indian  hockey  seemed veering towards another disastrous turn, thanks to the routine process of slaying of coaches, but the players showed some rarely seen gumption to ensure the year ended on a promising note.

A month after the men returned home following a pathetic performance in the World League Semifinal in London where they finished sixth - they lost to Canada in the fifth-place play-off - and a dismal European tour,  Hockey  India officials felt the team was stagnating under High Performance Director and head coach Roelant Oltmans.

They sought an explanation from the Dutchman but having already made up their minds, they sacked him rather hurriedly. Oltmans was the fourth foreign coach to be sent back home  in four years  and that decision didn't surprise anyone at all as the writing was on the wall. However, what stunned the fraternity was the appointment of Sjoerd Marijne as the new head coach when Harendra Singh - probably the best Indian coach at the moment - and other top guns were available.  

The fact that Marjine, who was coaching the Dutch women's national team, hadn't worked with any senior national men's team also raised plenty of eyebrows. The wisdom behind his elevation to the hot seat was questioned by almost everyone. And when HI named Harendra as the women's coach, many felt HI made not one, but two wrong decisions.  

Seemingly unaffected by the brewing storm, Marijne, however, has taken to the job like duck to water. He first boarded the flight to Dhaka for the Asia Cup where India clinched the gold, the icing on the cake being the twin wins over Pakistan and the team withstanding late pressure in the final against Malaysia.

Marijne, blooding the team with youngsters and looking to create a new counter-attacking style of play, then arrived in Bhubaneswar for his first stern examination - the World League Final that featured the top eight teams of the world.

India's record against the best in the business over the last few years hasn't been great and they expectedly managed to garner just one point in the three pool games. They dazzled in the opening draw against eventual champions Australia but looked sloppy and clueless against England and Germany. With the tournament having a format that allowed all participants a spot in the quarterfinals, the Indians were gifted a shot at Belgium.

India wore their winning cloak on the quarterfinal day, defeating Belgium in a thrilling affair before being undone by rain and the guile of Argentina in the semifinals. India were then pushed to their limits by a depleted Germany - playing with just 11 men - in the bronze medal match but they hung on bravely to seal a second straight medal of the same colour in the event.

The event also offered a glimpse of the transformation Indian  hockey would make next year. Manpreet Singh took over the playmaking duties from former skipper Sardar Singh while the seven youngsters made good enough impact to trouble the seniors when selection committee meets to pick squads next season. The team is still raw and inconsistent but offers hope of a brighter future.

The women's team, who competed in the Olympics for the second time last year, achieved another high this year when they sealed qualification for the 2018 World Cup. Although their berth for the quadrennial showpiece was confirmed the moment South Africa expectedly won their continental championship, the women ensured their participation is based solely on merit as they triumphed in the Asia Cup.  

The win in Kakamigahara, Japan, acted as a balm to an otherwise disappointing season for the eves. While they did win the World League Round 2 in West Vancouver, they took home the wooden spoon in the World League Semifinal at Johannesburg.  

An important 2018 beckons both of them. The Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Cup are sure to test their skills and fortitude. While the women will be hoping to bring about a revolution, the men will be striving for consistency.

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