When captain Manpreet Singh was spotted sitting on his haunches, head hanging, after India lost to Canada in the Hockey World League (HWL) Semi-Finals in London this June, it painted a gloomy picture—of yet another failure for the men’s hockey team on the global stage.

Six months later, its year has ended quite differently—with an Asia Cup gold and an HWL Finals bronze. The grade could have been B+ instead of B if the team had done better on the world stage, not just in Asia.

One man who would want to argue that grade is Sjoerd Marijne, who was at the helm as coach for the two tournaments mentioned above. However, he too would agree that replacing teachers before the final exams can’t mend a year’s report card. It can only make it appear a little better.

For the women’s team, it was a year to remember. It won only its second Asia Cup and entered the top 10 of the International Hockey Federation (FIH) rankings for the first time. The team also qualified for the 2018 World Cup on merit.

Interestingly, Marijne coached the women’s team until Hockey India (HI) sacked Roelant Oltmans and asked his fellow Dutchman to swap dugouts. The federation appointed Harendra Singh to take women’s hockey forward, and the junior World Cup-winning coach responded with the Asia Cup triumph. The remarkable coincidence in India’s twin Asia Cup wins was that both Marijne and Singh remained undefeated in their debut assignments.

India’s dominance in Asia was also reflected in the boys’ School Asia Cup, which the team won by defeating Malaysia 5-1 in the final.

But things weren’t as bright when the teams travelled to other continents.

Early setbacks

The men’s international calendar, which started with the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in April-May, ended in a bronze-medal finish. But it also resulted in an injury that kept the crucial cog in India’s defence—captain and goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh—out for the rest of the year.

The star custodian suffered a knee injury against Australia. It required surgery and a long rehabilitation that is expected to be complete in January. The other setback came in the match against Malaysia: India needed to win by a two-goal margin to qualify for the final but lost 0-1.

Beating New Zealand after that to finish third was, at best, a consolation, but making it to the podium came as a relief to then coach Oltmans. He had begun the year under the scanner after India lost in the quarter-finals of the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Dire straits

The three-nation invitational in Dusseldorf brought a draw against Germany and a win over world No.3 Belgium as good practice for the HWL Semi-Finals up next. But a hamstring injury to Rupinder Pal Singh and a family emergency for S.K. Uthappa hit a team already missing Sreejesh in goal.

Nothing, however, could justify another defeat against Malaysia in a knockout game and the embarrassing loss to Canada—both at the HWL Semi-Finals in London. The Malaysians returned as India’s nemesis to eject Manpreet & Co. in the quarter-finals with a 3-2 win. A similar margin against Canada meant that the knives were out for Oltmans and the underperforming senior players.

Goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh. Photo: AP
Goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh. Photo: AP

India finished a lowly sixth and the two wins over Pakistan, including a record 7-1 drubbing, weren’t much consolation.

While the men were lucky to have a spot in the year-ending HWL Finals—secured as hosts—the women failed in that objective, finishing eighth in the penultimate stage of the event held in Johannesburg, where they just had a win against minnows Chile.

Changes were made for the men’s European tour in August. Nine junior players were summoned, inviting opposition from Oltmans. “This is not my team," he said, according to some officials of Hockey India. His reluctance to blood youngsters prepared the ground for his ouster.

But the junior World Cup-winning players punched above their weight to help India beat a first-choice Netherlands team twice on the tour. For Oltmans, the writing was on the wall.

Ending on a high note

At the end of a two-day HI meeting in September, Oltmans was asked to leave. He had spent close to five years as high performance director and then chief coach. The federation decided to advertise for a new coach, only to withdraw the ad and appoint Marijne.

The junior men, who had been without a coach since the World Cup win in 2016, got Jude Felix as their new guru.

Though Marijne and Harendra Singh got little time to prepare for the Asia Cup, which was less than a month away, both teams scripted history. Before beating Malyasia 2-1 in the men’s final, India registered their third win of the year against Pakistan. The women’s team overcame China 5-4 in a nerve-wracking shootout.

Marijne’s real test awaited him at the HWL Finals in Bhubaneswar this month, and it began with the news of Sardar Singh’s ouster from the final squad. An indifferent performance in the league stage disappointed Bhubaneswar, but the team won two of the three matches that mattered—the quarter-final against Belgium in a shootout and the bronze-medal match against Germany on Sunday.

It made Marijne the first foreign hockey coach of an Indian team to finish his first two tournaments on the podium.

Troubles off the pitch

Sardar Singh’s biggest fear returned to haunt him at the HWL Semi-Finals in London when his alleged former girlfriend, British-Indian Ashpal Bhogal, lodged a police complaint and the former captain was summoned for questioning to a police station in Leeds.

An enraged FIH president, Narinder Batra, alleged in a Facebook post that a few Pakistan-origin members of the British parliament were conspiring against India. He was later forced by FIH to delete the post and issue an apology.

But the drama didn’t end there. Upon the team’s return from London in June, HI president Mariamma Koshy filed a complaint with the FIH alleging that Pakistan tried to “fix" (sabotage) their match against India. It alleged that Bhogal was paid to file the complaint and that too with such timing that Sardar Singh was forced to miss the match against Pakistan.

India also pulled out of the Hockey Pro League that is set to replace the HWL from January 2019. The move was said to be a reaction to the FIH forcing Batra to apologize, but the federation dismissed this as rumours.

The Hockey India League also hit troubled waters—the 2018 edition of the tournament was cancelled as the franchises, especially Delhi Waveriders and Punjab Warriors, cited financial constraints. However, Hockey India CEO Elena Norman has confirmed that the league’s return has been tentatively scheduled for the end of 2019.

Before that, India have a big 2018 coming up—with the Commonwealth Games, Champions Trophy, Asian Games, and the World Cup at home.

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