Hockey hopes soar high with World Cup at home

By | November 12, 2018

By David Bodapati

Bengaluru: Indian hopes fly high in two-year circles whenever there is an Olympics or a World Cup. More often as an emotional attachment to the national game rather than a professional assessment nor a practical and honest overview. The other smaller tournaments come and go and every win has its shares of euphoria or sadness that triggers anger and every win against Pakistan has its special share of reactions and one such moment is still a possibility in the quarterfinal of this World Cup too.

With Odisha government sponsoring the Indian Hockey, Bhubaneswar is agog with much fanfare and promotional are events abuzz all around. Social media noise and fan events have reached an unprecedented level, thanks to the involvement of players and officials along with the government machinery. Not to talk about the Hockey India, keyman, Narendra Batra, at the helm of World Hockey as FIH president.

India continues to remain the only country which won 8 Olympic gold medals. But the World Cup history is not so favourable with India winning the last gold at the World arena, way back in 1975. Then came the last gold at Moscow Olympics, under Vasudeva Baskaran. Many say it was a depleted field but the high level of competition and tough opposition in strong nations like Spain made the gold worth its wait in Gold. But the wait continues after 38 years. The last best chance we had is 18 years before, at Sydney Olympics, with Baskaran at the helm again, as coach. But it was not to be as India conceded a fag-end goal and their Olympic gold dreams.

But the 18-member Indian Men’s Hockey team under Manpreet Singh at the Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup Bhubaneswar 2018 to be played at the Kalinga Stadium from November 28 will be a rare occasion to test the skills and strength of India in the world arena. A semifinal berth or top-5 finish must be considered as a realistic achievement considering we are ranked No.5 in FIH world rankings. But many European and Oceania teams are traditionally strong and powerful with their own brand of hockey and unless we have a mix of our attacking style with consistent defence, it will be a heculean task to come up with regular wins against the top-four teams.

It provides some of the seniors like the goalkeeper and former skipper PR Sreejesh, Birendra Lakra, Chinglensana Singh Kangujam and skipper Manpreet Singh to shine at a big event and show the world that they have the temperament and the wherewithal to play a high-standard of hockey at the world stage.

It will be a bigh moment and huge task for young coach Harendra Singh, who has the experience and youthful knowlege of latest techniques to traslate the theory into practice. He has a different style, than the likes of Baskaran and Rajinder Singh, in whose time he was an under study as coach. Now with the era of foreign coahces coming to an end with his superb showing with the Indian junior team, it is time for Harendra to pass the litmus test and prove that Indian coaches are no less.

He is a bit like Cedric D’Souza as far as scientific training is concerned but at the same time quite different in his day-to-day training routines. If Cedric brought in the sense of off the ball running and a vision of empty spaces in hockey, Baskaran who resucitated attacking hockey, it was Harendra who spoke consistently of translating turn-overs into goals and playing to the opponent’s strength and weakness.

Apart from Amit Rohidas, Surender Kumar, Kothajit Singh, the focus will be on how the players who graduated after 2016 Junior World Cup win like Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar in the defence that will provide the ammunition to the attack and teeth to drag-flickers. The drags and penalty corner conversions have been a weak spot for India.

The ups and downs of Manpreet Singh as a pivotal in the midfield, distributing the ball will play a big role in India’s campaign. It is also a make or break event for young guns Sumit, Nilakanta Sharma also of the Junior World Cup team and Hardik Singh, who made his International debut last month.

The forward line of experienced Akashdeep Singh, Dilpreet Singh, Lalit Upadhyay and Junior World Cup winners Mandeep Singh, Simranjeet Singh have to be more consistent and fruitful. There is no room for unforced errors at this universal stage which can have a devastating effect and the need to build on team play and letting the ball off to a teammate in a better position is key to success.

India are in Pool C with World No.3 Belgium, one of the best teams who made a dash to the top in the last decade, Canada, who are not the minnows anymore, and South Africa whom we play the first match are better than many top teams in the other pools. But at World Cup, everyone needs to be respected and every country can pull out a surprise.

Topoping the pool will be the best way to have a peaceful entry into the the last-eight stage. But India is known to be emotional after losing crucial matches and have time and again lost the focus to achieve better placement. Since the world cup format offers a second chance to qualify for the quarterfinals, even if one does not top the pool, India needs to maintain a steady and cool play even if they lose to Belgium and aim for a quarterfinal berth.

Though our pool is a relatively easy group, one should look at Pool D, which is clubbed with our Pool (C) for cross-over matches which we have to play if we lose a match or fail to finish on top of the pool. Then we should strive to at least come second in the group where we are most likely to play an Asian team in Pakistan or Malaysia. The other two Pool D teams Netherlands and Germany, who play fast European style of the hockey, are expected to raise their game a notch higher at any world-level event and we should avoid either of them at the quarterfinal stage.

The team was selected from a core group of 34 players in the coutry, the best from different regions and different playing styles. But all of them had long hands as coalch Harendra was given a free hand and are currently at the venue in a high-performance camp. The coach and the players are confident and raring to go but like any other year, only time will tell if they can withstand the pressure of playing at home and come out triumphant.