The Indian men’s hockey team’s silver medal performance at the 2016 Champions Trophy in London, where they made the final for the first time in the tournament’s 38-year existence, has left two former national captains and Olympic gold medalists with renewed hopes about the health of the sport in the country.
An India team missing its regular captain and Sardar Singh and ace drag-flicker Rupinder Pal Singh finished second to claim silver, finishing behind No 1 ranked Australia who beat them 3-1 after PR Sreejesh’s team missed three tries in the deciding shootout of the hard-fought final.
Former India captain MM Somaya, who went to the Olympics thrice and was a member of the team that won gold at the 1980 Moscow Games, rates India’s performance in London as “a fantastic achievement”.
“If certain teams did not send their best sides, let’s not forget that India were without four of their top players too, most importantly Sardar and Rupinder. These are world-class players who we haven’t taken along to London, and still did so well,” he told TOI Sports. “When we won the bronze at the 1982 Champions Trophy it was considered a great achievement, but this is much better. The quality of the game has improved so much [during the tournament] under Oltmans. I’m really happy that he’s helped change the style of play, the tactics,” he said.
“There’s no focus on individual performances and individual forays, and that gives the team more width. You’re playing all 16 players, encouraging them to be positive, backing the ones you’ve picked, getting them to play some aggressive and fast-paced hockey. The vibe coming from this team is very positive and I would like to believe that Oltmans has had a lot to do with that. It’s really commendable what this team has done at the Champions Trophy.”
A somewhat experimental India won two matches, lost three (including the final) and drew one. They made the final thanks to hosts Great Britain, who drew 3-3 with Belgium in the final league game. In the summit clash, they pushed world champions Australia but ultimately didn’t have enough firepower to consistently win the pivotal moments. Muffing three tries at the end left India to claim silver, though not before they protested against the second successful attempt by Australia’s Daniel Beale.
The idea behind resting regular Sardar and Rupinder, as Hockey India president Narinder Batra stated, was to give head coach Roelant Oltmans a chance to see the younger players and analyze what India’s best combinations could be going forward. To that degree, the likes of Harmanpreet Singh, Mandeep Singh and Surender Kumar have been very impressive. The trio was hugely influential to the 2-1 win over Great Britain and have done well overall to showcase their skills on a tough stage, day in and day out. Harmanpreet was named Best Junior Player, a testament to how good he was in London.
“Youngsters like Harmanpreet and Mandeep have really impressed me, mostly with their ball control and knowledge of game situations, and not buckling under pressure. It is a good sign for Indian hockey that we have such promising talent shining through and getting an opportunity at this level,” said Somaya. “What they stand to have gained from this tournament before Rio is significant.”
Somaya’s former captain Zafar Iqbal, who led India at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and was also part of the team that won gold in 1980 – the country’s last medal in hockey – is pleased as well, but more cautious in gauging the team’s success ahead of the Olympics.
“It’s a good result. We played some good hockey overall, against some good teams. Beating Great Britain at their home, drawing with Germany – though we had the lead – and then Korea, these are good results,” he said. “There were some shaky moments too, especially with that old problem of not being able to finish strongly. We get attacking, then slip into a different mode towards the end. How India can handle that pressure at the Olympics will be very crucial. Things need to be tightened, especially when attacking. We struggle to convert penalty corners and our conversation rate is also worrying. But yes, there was some very good hockey on display.”
One aspect of Sreejesh’s team that impressed Iqbal, also a former India coach, was their calmness.
Olympics is a different level, and you will see teams come in with different tactics and players, so we cannot compare these two events. India finishing second here does not obviously mean that we will be second at Rio. Teams do not disclose too many cards before the Olympics. We too will add Sardar and Rupinder. The team will take confidence from this performance and playing the final against Australia and almost winning means that you should not be shaky at the Olympics.”