Indian hockey in 2018: A tale of missed opportunities

india-netherlands-hockey-ap Indian players react after their loss against the Netherlands in the men's Hockey World Cup quarterfinal match at Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar | AP

2018 was supposed to be an important year for Indian hockey—Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the World Cup were big ticket competitions in which India 'had' to shine. But, as it turned out, 2018 devolved into stories of ‘what-could-have-been’. The Blue Sticks were supposed to retain their top position at the Asian Games, and, at the very least, make a semi-final appearance in the recently concluded FIH Hockey World Cup. However, none of these materialised. At the start of 2018, India was ranked number six in the FIH World Rankings. By the end of the year, it ranked number five. A semi-final spot eluded the team in its World Cup campaign, but the overall performance was praised by experts. Senior India head coach Harendra Singh faces an uncertain future. One would call it a familiar sinking feeling.

Post the exit of Roelant Oltmans as senior men’s team coach, in September 2017, Hockey India, in all its wisdom, decided to hand over the reins to Sjoerd Marijne, who was till then in charge of the senior Indian women's hockey team. They entrusted Harendra Singh, junior men's hockey coach, with the women's coaching job. Marijne had never coached a men's team in his career, nor had Singh coached a women's team. Needless to say, the move had its fair share of sceptics. 

A loss to England in the bronze medal match at the Commonwealth Games this April marked an end to the experiment. In probably a first, Hockey India went for a coach swap. They repatriated Marijne to the women's team, and Singh, who had proven himself a top class coach with the junior men's team, was accorded a chance to coach the senior men's hockey team. In the midst of all the chopping and changing, there was also a chapter where veteran midfielder Sardar Singh was dropped from the squad. He was left out of the Hockey World League finals in Bhubaneswar in October 2017, and the Asia Cup in December. Sardar returned in February as the skipper for the 27th Sultan Azlan Shah tournament, where the team finished a dismal fifth. The indecision over Sardar continued till the Commonwealth Games 2018.

Post CWG, and Harendra's arrival, Sardar Singh returned to the Indian team. Boosted by the return of goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh, who had a long injury lay-off, the team displayed its best performance of the year, finishing second in the Champions Trophy in Breda, losing to Australia in shoot-out. Harendra, it appeared, finally had a settled squad, which could deliver in the one competition that really mattered—Asian Games. India went in as defending champions, firm favourites to regain the gold medal and the all-vital qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. A messed up campaign saw India exiting in the semi-finals, losing to Malaysia in shoot-out. This was undoubtedly a setback that neither the team, Harendra, Hockey India, or even the fans foresaw. Sardar Singh, dropped from Asian Champions Trophy, decided to quit hockey. 

Change is the only constant for Indian hockey, and coach Harendra took bold and brave decisions to bring in wholesome changes in the squad for the World Cup. With no Sardar, Rupinder Pal Singh and S.V. Sunil around, he opted—for the Bhubaneswar World Cup campaign—to pick youngsters he had coached and who were part of his junior world cup campaign. The squad—a mix of the experienced and the youthful, fit, fast and strong, looked good to make its mark in the World Cup. The loss to Netherlands in the quarter finals was heartbreaking, but India put up a strong fight.

The chopping and changing, and Hockey India's desperate demand for results, led many to compare India’s story with that of the newly crowned World Champion Belgium’s. The Red Lions had a core team of players—unchanged—and the team management stuck to its job despite some setbacks on the way. The most important task that the team will face in 2019 is the qualification for Tokyo Olympics. India has decided not to take part in the Pro League. They will instead opt for a longer qualification route. Will Harendra Singh manage to retain his job? Will an iconic player like Sreejesh still be entrusted with the job of first choice goalkeeper? Indian hockey ends another year with more questions than answers.