The look on their faces said a lot. As India hockey captain Harmanpreet Singh and head coach Graham Reid sat down to face questions from the media after their team’s exit in the crossovers round, Singh was downcast and Reid was evidently unhappy. India had thrown away a two-goal lead before being eliminated by lower-ranked New Zealand in sudden death.
All of India’s problems in the tournament―low penalty-corner conversion, poor finishing and nerves in high-pressure situations―were visible in the must-win match. Hockey India president Dilip Tirkey, the soft-spoken former captain who took many a hard hit defending India’s goal during an illustrious playing career, told THE WEEK that the team did not play to its potential. “We had played really well for one and a half years,” he said. “So, expectations were high. I, too, expected them to at least reach the quarterfinals.”
Legendary Australian coach Ric Charlesworth said the players, especially the seasoned ones, were perhaps a tad complacent after winning the bronze at the Tokyo Olympics. “India had so many chances to win in the World Cup,” Charlesworth told THE WEEK. He said he had spoken to Reid about the potential dangers of the players being celebrated as heroes after the Olympics.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons Reid trusted younger players like Shamsher Singh and Sukhjeet Singh during the shootout, even as vastly experienced players like Akashdeep Singh (222 matches), Manpreet Singh (318) and Mandeep Singh (198) looked on. Shamsher missed both his penalties in the shootout and Sukhjeet missed in sudden death after scoring the crucial fifth penalty to keep India alive.
Former India player and commentator Jagbir Singh did not mince his words. “I am really disappointed and others would be, too,” he said. “The facilities, training and exposure given to the team were incomparable. Leading 3-1 and then giving goals away on a platter is unacceptable.” Jagbir demanded that the team management explain why the seniors did not take the penalties. “It is a big question,” he said. “These senior guys have been scoring for the national team for many years. For youngsters, the pressure is too much to handle.”
Tirkey said the coach and players would have to answer these questions. “The coach would have noticed something during practice,” Tirkey said. “We will have to ask him why it (seniors not taking the penalties) happened. We will definitely ask. Even the players. We will talk to them.”
Reid had injected youth into the team for the World Cup, but his players did not meet his expectations. Asked where the team erred, he said: “Obviously, our penalty-corner conversion. We also had a lot of circle penetrations, but could not convert those. In defence, we needed to be tighter.”
Harmanpreet, India’s main drag-flick expert, has had a nightmare of a tournament. He converted just one penalty-corner in four matches. India’s top scorer at the end of the crossover match was Akashdeep with two field goals. Was it a case of Harmanpreet not being able to handle the pressure of captaincy? “To be honest it has been some time since I became skipper,” he said. “I don’t think it is about pressure. I know all are talking about it (him not scoring enough). But I am trying; when you go out on the field, you don’t think you won’t score or there is pressure. You go in thinking you will score. No pressure. But, [I] will try to find out what went wrong.”
In Tokyo, India had converted one in every three penalty-corners. During the World Cup, the conversion was five out of 26―a rate of about one in five. “Yeah, and one was a rebound,” said Charlesworth. “Penalty-corners have been an issue for India in the tournament. In Tokyo, Harmanpreet and Rupinder Pal Singh did well. The disappointing thing is that in every game Harmanpreet has missed pick up.”
Jagbir said Harmanpreet, who missed his penalty stroke in sudden death after scoring earlier, “took the sudden death penalty stroke a bit too casually”. He was overconfident about the stroke he would use, said Jagbir, and it was one of the toughest strokes to execute.
Tirkey said Harmanpreet’s drag-flick not working in four matches hurt the team. But, he disagreed with the theory that the pressure of captaincy affected his performance. “He was captain in the Australia tour, too,” he said.
While there is no doubt that the team’s disappointing performance needs a thorough analysis, it is not something to be too worried about. “No, I don’t think it is worrisome,” said Charlesworth. “It is a blip; you will get that. But, India’s trajectory is good. You have to pay attention to some things. New Zealand got into the circle too often―the defence has to improve. Other teams may be happy to give away corners if you are not scoring much from them.”
Reid said that the team needed a psychological trainer and that he would address that matter after the World Cup.
Jagbir said the changes in the team after the Olympics had been too frequent and drastic. “Top players who were part of the Olympic team have vanished,” he said. “Concentrate now on the next major event―the Asian Games―and qualify directly for the Olympics. Encourage the pool of players you have. There has been more frequent change of players compared with other teams. Teams don’t change so frequently.”
Any knee-jerk reaction in the wake of the disappointment should be avoided. As Jagbir said: “Such things happen. But, lessons should be learned. For ages, we have been repeating mistakes.”