Sport loves a story of resurgence. Even though Indian hockey hasn’t quite been able to recapture the highs of its golden years, it may be time to remove the sepia-tinted glasses and embrace the present.
Traditionally, hockey in India has been known for its wrist wizards on mowed grass, but 2016 showed that they are now up to pace with today’s game, which is played at breakneck speed on blazing-blue artificial pitches.
On the face of it, an eighth-place finish at the Rio Olympics seems like a disappointment. But it told its own story of progress—slow but steady.
The Indian men’s hockey team had failed to even make the Olympic grade in 2008. In 2012 in London, they finished 12th among 12 teams. Hope, sometimes delusional, followed them to Rio. Even though they beat Ireland and eventual champions Argentina, they stumbled at crucial moments—like the closing minutes against Germany, conceding victory, or failing to hold on to a lead and settling for a 2-2 draw with Canada in the group stage.
They made the knockout stages for the first time in 36 years, but that was mainly because Rio had opted to hold quarter-finals, rather than head straight to semi-finals after the group stage.
“Maybe they could have been a little more tactical in the quarter-final against Belgium (India lost 1-3),” says former India captain M.M. Somaya, who was part of the gold-medal winning Indian team at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. “But overall it has been a good year for Indian hockey. The team has always been talented, but earlier they were a little too impulsive. Now they have a good core group, a lot of the players have played for the past five-six years and have a lot of experience.”
The men’s hockey team is also enjoying the calm after a storm whipped up by churning changes in management. Since Hockey India came into being in 2009, four foreign coaches—José Brasa, Michael Nobbs, Terry Walsh and Paul van Ass—have come and gone. Dutchman Roelant Oltmans took over last July and has steadied the ship.
“He has built a fit side,” says Somaya. “He has been able to give structure to the Indian side. There is now more belief to hold positions. Oltmans makes good use of the rolling substitutions, he ensures use of all the players on the bench. He has made the team professional; they don’t get as many cards now.”
In June, in London, they made the final of the Champions Trophy. Even though they lost out to Australia in a penalty shoot-out, the silver medal was their best finish in the tournament in 36 years.
They also dominated at the continental level, beating China 9-0 in one of the group matches and defeating Pakistan twice, including a 3-2 win in the final, to claim the Asian Champions Trophy in November.
Defender V.R. Raghunath, one of the senior members of the team, also credited the coach for turning the team into a tighter and more professional unit.
“There is a system that is being followed since Oltmans took over,” Raghunath said recently in Mumbai.
“For instance, the team is divided into three groups. A team leader is appointed in each group who passes on instructions to his respective team. Oltmans communicates with the team leaders, who then pass on instructions to their team. We have beaten top teams like Australia, Germany and Holland. Fitness is no more a concern, but if we start beating the top sides and enter the top 4, we will have achieved our aim.”
The experience of sharing dressing rooms with the best in the business during the Hockey India League is paying off, the exposure gained from a lot of international tournaments has helped.
Narinder Batra, who started 2016 as the Hockey India chief but has now been elected president of the International Hockey Federation (FIH), is unwavering in his belief in the sport. He has brought in the resources and discipline.
The team has emerged as a strong defensive unit with players like Rupinder Singh, Harmanpreet Singh and Raghunath manning the backline. They have also picked up pace on the flanks. The biggest areas of concern for the team remain goal-scoring and goalkeeping. They don’t have enough quality or penetration going forward and the team is overly-reliant on skipper P.R. Sreejesh to carry out goal-keeping duties.
The captain and the chief coach of the senior team are playing support cast for the Indian team in the ongoing Junior World Cup in Lucknow to not only guide them during the tournament but identify talent for the future. Oltmans has already hinted that a new core group will be formed for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after the Hockey India League concludes early next year.
The 62-year-old Dutchman’s vision, in a country that gets into Olympic gear only a few months before the event, is a revelation. Hockey India has retained his services till the 2020 Games.
While the women’s team did not get as much of the spotlight, they took a few massive strides themselves.
The team qualified for the Olympics for the first time in 36 years though it failed to win a single match and finished last among 12 teams.
“We have fast hands but not necessarily fast feet. That’s a change that people have to embrace. You could have the world’s best, most talented, most skilful player but if they can’t run, the game has already gone past that,” coach Neil Hawgood summed up their predicament after the Olympics.
There is still some way to go before India is once again considered a global superpower. But the highly competitive men’s team, ranked sixth in the world, seems well on the long road to resurgence.