Lessons aplenty for India after below-par bronze at Asian Champions Trophy | Hockey - Hindustan Times
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Lessons aplenty for India after below-par bronze at Asian Champions Trophy

By, New Delhi
Dec 24, 2021 09:43 PM IST

The tournament meant little in the larger scheme of things, but India’s struggles in their last two matches indicate a few worrying sides of their game.

Harmanpreet Singh clutched his sides, Sumit sank to his haunches, and Manpreet Singh trudged to his opposite number for the customary greetings as his teammates dragged themselves off the field, slightly dazed and enormously relieved. If one thought those were the effects of a draining match against Belgium or Australia – two teams ranked above World No 3 India – there was a surprise in store. It was Pakistan, ranked 15 places below, who had run India ragged in the bronze medal playoff that the latter won 4-3.

Indian hockey team in action against Japan during Asian Champions Trophy semi-final tie(@TheHockeyIndia) PREMIUM
Indian hockey team in action against Japan during Asian Champions Trophy semi-final tie(@TheHockeyIndia)

Shorn of context, the recently-concluded Asian Champions Trophy was also expected to be short of contest for India. As it turned out, the defending champions were held to a draw by 16th-ranked eventual champions South Korea, stunned in the semis by 17th-ranked Japan, and almost shocked by 18th-ranked Pakistan in the third-place playoff. Hosts Bangladesh, who failed to win a single match and were blanked 9-0 by India, are ranked 40. Clearly, it was an anticlimax India would like to dust off at the earliest.

“I don’t think we should read too much into the results, but one thing is for sure, the Indian captain and coach will not be happy with the results. As for being run close by lower-ranked teams, I feel top-20 is an extremely competitive bunch and any team can beat anyone on their day,” said Siddharth Pandey, former junior India player-turned-analyst.

During the competition, chief coach Graham Reid had repeatedly spoken of giving opportunities to youngsters. Sure enough, India rested half their squad that won a historic bronze at the Tokyo Olympics, and gave youngsters such as Shilanand Lakra, Gursahibjit Singh, Jaskaran Singh, goalkeepers Suraj Karkera and Krishan Pathak a chance.

Defender Dipsan Tirkey and forward Akashdeep Singh, both of who couldn’t make it to the Games, also made their comebacks.

The second-string side still had eight Olympians. Except Japan and India, none of the participants at the tournament had even qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. On paper, it was supposed to be a cakewalk, but the deep-defending Koreans served an early warning with a 2-2 draw coming from 0-2 down.

In fact, India never played a “complete match”—even against Bangladesh, where India pumped in nine goals without conceding, eight penalty corners out of 13 went abegging.

The wins against Pakistan and Japan in group matches were also marked by lapses, an aspect acknowledged by chief coach Reid in his media interaction ahead of the semi-final.

“We are looking at the scoreline behind the scoreline. A 6-0 result may actually be lot closer on the field,” he had said.

Pandey concurs. “There were enough errors even in the one-sided wins. The youngsters didn’t look ready and the inexperience showed on occasions, but that’s precisely why such tournaments are important.”

Two days after being handed a 6-0 mauling, Japan knocked the pre-tournament favourites out of gold medal contention. It was, in Pandey’s words, “an ideal shot of caffeine.”

“Look, you can’t just turn up and expect the opposition to grovel. Japan deserved respect for being the Asian Games champions,” he said.

The 5-3 loss was attributed to a “lazy” approach by captain Manpreet.

“After that match, I met Kenta Tanaka, and he told me that Japan’s main goal coming into this event was not to win the trophy, but beat India. It tells us that the Asian teams now see us as benchmark. The Tokyo medal has given other teams the belief that if India can do it, so can they. We can’t afford to relax for a moment. The journey to Asian Games has started in Dhaka,” said Pandey, who was at the venue, commentating for the host broadcaster.

Japanese forwards ripped through Indian midfield at will, building waves of attacks, while India simply went through the motions until the final whistle.

“Easily the worst start to a hockey match for India in 10-11 years,” Pandey said. Japan ran away with early lead, securing five PCs in the opening 90 seconds.

“It reminded me of the Commonwealth Games final of 2010 when Australia thrashed us 8-0. But then, Australia were the reigning world champions. This, against Japan, was simply unreal.”

Pandey attributes the lapses to lack of game time for the young squad. “I agree these players practice for days in national camps, but the pressure of an international match can never be replicated in practice sessions. (Former India coach) Ric Charlesworth use to say that a team needs at least 30 international games a year to be really battle hardened. Only when the core team plays 100 matches in a four-year cycle will they develop that Belgium-like telepathic understanding of where your players are on the pitch and who is running where. Covid has thrown all that out of window.”

Among the players who impressed, young Shilanand Lakra, playing his first senior international event, caught the eye with his pace, stamina, and temperament. His attacks for the flanks were a treat to watch, and as the tournament wore on, Lakra grew in confidence and began to assert himself on the field.

“I liked his work-rate a lot. He never stopped running, and looked a complete natural at this stage. I would like to see him against the European nations though, but he has all the makings of a very good forward presser,” said Pandey.

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