The Hero Honda FIH World Cup in New Delhi, which starts on Sunday, promises to be a spectacular event where millions of diehard hockey fans will have the opportunity of seeing first-hand the nuances of the modern game played by teams from across the globe.
Having this world event on home soil should spur our lads to greater heights and if one goes by the rule of thumb of home and away games, then our team should do well with home support. Given that our team will also have the use of the ground well in advance, it will have the added advantage of being familiar with every nook and corner of the pitch and can plan accordingly.
The gap between the top nine teams has diminished to an extent where any team can topple another, and if one is to go by our team’s recent performances, there has been a steady improvement which augurs well. In the end, the key will be the performance on that given day.
There is no doubt in my mind that India is placed in the top nine in the world and has the wherewithal to go all the way, as long as it maintains its focus, plays consistently through the tournament, handles pressure, believes in its ability, creates and capitalizes on chances and eradicates from its mind the recent episodes—other than hockey—that have dominated the news. Having said this, it would not be prudent on my part to even venture on where we will eventually be placed, but being an Indian, it stands to reason that the heart hopes and wishes we emulate our 1975 heroes.
Players to watch: Australia’s Jamie Dwyer (in yellow T-shirt); and (below, from left) India’s Rajpal Singh, Deepak Thakur and Sandeep Singh. Getty Images
I am often asked what the trends in today’s game are. A good synopsis of today’s game is all about “total hockey” revolving around speed coupled with game intelligence and an all-round team effort. Every player has to know how and when to attack, and when to defend and play his part to the fullest within the parameters of the game plan—the mantra being “every player behind the ball”. Considering that the player is physically fit, today’s player uses his basic game intelligence to receive, release, think, attack, defend and counter-attack with speed, which is of the essence all the time. In the past, there were numerous turnovers when speed was deployed, but today the player is so highly trained to do things at top speed that you see an unbelievable pace in the game with minimal turnovers. During possession, when the team is moving the ball around, initiating a potential build-up, it may seem quite boring and ordinary. But don’t be fooled: It’s the lull before a storm because once there is an opening, the transfer into attack happens at a rapid pace. In short, counter-attacks are fast and furious.
Other points that come to the fore are awareness and communication between ball side and help side, understanding between contact and supporting leads, power, tactics, deception, fine tuning and execution of set plays, vision and understanding, closing spaces and phenomenal pressure on the rival ball carrier, quickness in starts, instantaneous decision making, fluidity in interchanging positions, honing technical skills to incredible levels, exploiting space, maintaining pace throughout with clever substitutions and changing defence into attack in a flash. Other aspects that have become dominant among top teams are communication levels, belief, attitude, match temperament and consistency on the pitch—how to respond to situations, when to be composed and when to press the aggression button, how to change the pattern of the game and make the opponent play to their tune.
Lastly, who are the favourites to lift the World Cup? At this level of sport, every coach worth his pay cheque will have completed his preparatory work to the best of his ability, studied all his opponents, instilled in his players a spirit of battle-readiness and eradicated the fear psychosis, if any. Every team will know its strengths, weaknesses and will do its utmost to cover its faults and play through its strengths. We are bound to see hard-fought battles on the pitch, where there will be no easy handouts.
Impartial as I can be in my assessment of each team, Australia is the team to beat given the recent track record. It is probably the fittest in the world, and can blend Asian and European styles of play into its already incredibly speedy and aggressive game.
Besides having some great players in its ranks—Jamie Dwyer and Grant Schubert, to name a couple—it also has as coach Ric Charlesworth, who has seen it all and tasted success as both player and coach. Any of the top nine teams can lift this coveted trophy and be the world champ. It depends on consistency and performance on a given day.
The top nine teams, in alphabetical order, are: Australia, England, Germany, Holland, India, Korea, New Zealand, Pakistan and Spain. Without meaning to demean the others (Argentina, Canada and South Africa), I do not think they have a realistic chance of winning the World Cup. I would love it if they proved me wrong.
Let the battles begin.
Cedric D’Souza is a former coach of the Indian and Greek national teams, and is a high-performance coach certified by the International Hockey Federation.
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