Victories for both the men’s and women’s team in the recently concluded Asia Cup have brought joy to Indian hockey fans. Here’s looking at some highs from the ‘Double Dhamaka’ journey and how it augurs for the future tournaments.
Statistics are proof of an in-form team
Being runner’s up in the last edition of the men’s Asia Cup, there was a clear message to win the trophy this time. After all India are ranked the highest (6th) whereas all other teams don’t even feature in the top 10. This win was only the third occasion when India has won the Asia Cup (previously in 2003, 2007 and now in 2017) having been runners up for 5 times, bronze and 5th placed, the other two times.
Indian men’s team maintained an unbeaten streak in the seven games of the tournament drawing just one game while scoring a whopping 34 goals with two clean sheets. The goals were equally distributed across each quarter and the team got a goal difference of +22. However, one cause of worry was the fact that we conceded three out of the six goals in the last quarter bringing back memories of tense final minutes – a problem plaguing us perennially. Especially, this was evident when we just about hanged on to a 2-1 nail biting victory against Malaysia in the finals.
The women’s team also emerged champions courtesy a thrilling shootout victory over China in the gold medal match at the 9th Women’s Asia Cup 2017. Unbeaten throughout, topping the group stages with a 15 goal difference, the Indian Women’s Team began their 9th Asia Cup 2017 campaign with a perfect 10 against Singapore. Having a 6-1 losing record with 3 matches drawn in the 10 matches they played so far the odds were against the Indian Evesin their next match against China. However, they came out all guns blazing to thrash China 4-1, taming the dragons in what was their first victory in regulation time in over 30 years – the silver lining of this tournament.
— The Bridge (@TheBridge_IN) November 5, 2017
It was heartening that they repeated their group stage performance yet again in the finals and also did a double over their Chinese counterparts, having won the Asian Champions Trophy exactly a year ago. To add to the jubilation, this Asia Cup victory meant that India broke a 13 year jinx by qualifying for the 2018 World Cup and as captain Rani iterated; on merit!
Change of guard
Coaching is indeed a thankless job! The coach sacking saga continued for Indian hockey and as usual just before the start of a tournament. It resulted in a swap for the then women’s head coach – Sjoerd Marijne to be given the helm of the men’s team with former India Men’s Junior Hockey World Cup winning coach Harendra Singh mentoring the women’s ranks as his replacement.
Former India Olympian and ace drag-flicker Jugraj Singh as an assistant coach was especially assigned to help both Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar with their (PC) responsibilities. Manpreet Singh was yet again handed the captaincy whereas last tournament’s top scorer for India (with 9 goals) Rani led the Indian Eves.
For the men’s team the idea was to have a player-driven approach with the coach assisting them, perhaps lifted from Ravi Shastri-Virat Kohli led Indian Cricket team. This decision just before the Asia Cup and more importantly the Men’s Final Hockey World League (HWL 2017) later this year led to widespread anger amongst fans.
Once again people started questioning the policies and underlying politics of Hockey India. Appointing a man who has never trained a men’s national team and has worked only with a women’s team certainly has to be a big decision and one that comes with lot of responsibility. Only time will tell whether this experiment pays off or falls back heavily for the Hockey India team management.
But what was unfortunate for the men’s team turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the women’s team. The team had a poor run when Marijne was in-charge and with Harendra they were much more confident in their approach. Marijne also pushed the boys to give their best. Without doubt, these victories would be sweet for both coaches as it was their first time at helm with their respective players. Moreover, it would have brought sweet memories for Jugraj Singh as he had missed out on India’s last triumph led by Dhanraj Pillay in 2003 due to a freak accident.
Players and their magical stick did all the talking
It was a mixed team with seniors back in fray and two new goalkeepers – Akash and Suraj in goal backed up with a not so experienced defense line. PR Sreejesh, Kothajit Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh, and Birendra Lakra were all sidelined recuperating from their injuries. However, the midfield had senior players and the forward line was a mix of experience and fresh faces.
Indian Men’s Hockey Team’s GK Akash Chikte won the best goalkeeper of the tournament and also got promoted to the rank of Nayab Subedar in a ceremony held at the Office of The Chief of Army Staff. Interestingly, the stopper was also adjudicated with the Sportsman of the Year Award at the Golden Jubilee Annual Awards 2017 Sports Journalists’ Association of Mumbai (SJAM).
Lalit Upadhyay and Ramandeep did bulk of the scoring with four field goals. However, the penalty corner (PC) exploits of Harmanpreet Singh helped him become the top scorer with seven goals which included the award for the best goal of the tournament. While Raman and Harman ensured India’s easy passage into the super 4’s with a goal in every match, it was Gurjant Singh who scored when it mattered the most in every game of the super 4’s. Lalit Upadhyay made it even sweeter by ending the tournament with his decisive goal against Malaysia in the grand finale. SV Sunil along with Lalit also contributed with three goals, Man of the match of the final – Akashdeep Singh with two goals whereas Amit Rohidas, SK Uthappa, Satbir Singh scored a goal apiece. Another highlight was Chinglensana performance against arch rivals Pakistan in the group game where he chipped in with a goal to deservedly win the man of the match award.
‘Gurjant Singh, Haramanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar, Sumit and Suraj Karkare as a goalkeeper, who gave us so many lives, all played every well. Harmanpreet with his PC’s was the top scorer of the Asia Cup and great on the defence. Same for Varun in defence. Gurjant scored a goal for us whenever we wanted it. For example, against Korea he scored the goal with few seconds left on the clock. That moment was so important for us. They are really good and doing great right now. With the upcoming time they will get more better.’ ~ Captain Manpreet Singh’s view on the youngsters in a recent interview.
Sheroes on the prowl
Whereas for the women’s team, the onus was on youth. Some players were freshly drafted while others hadn’t even completed 50 games. Take for example defender Nikki Pradhan who played her 50th game against Japan. Moreover, for some the tournament also marked their first goal.
This Cup also marked 150 International caps for Indian Women’s Team’s dependable goalkeeper Savita. After all, it was Savita who thwarted the fifth Chinese attempt on goal in the nerve-wracking final shoot-out for gold. It was befitting that she was adjudged as the Goalkeeper of the Tournament whereas Monica received the Woman of the Match award in the finals.
— The Bridge (@TheBridge_IN) November 6, 2017
Goal Machine Gurjit
Gurjit Kaur a penalty corner (PC) specialist was never on the first team lineup but brought on as an impact substitution and didn’t she make an impact? Apart from the finals, she in fact scored in every game of the tournament! It was Gurjit who provided an early double breakthrough in the semi final match against Japan. She first scored with a PC in the 7th minute and doubled the delight just two minutes later. Amidst this, her statemate Navjot Kaur added a field goal to make it two goals in a minute and mark India’s total dominance in the opening minutes to get an unassailable 3-0 lead. However, the lead was brought down to 1 goal at half-time and Lalremsiami’s smart finish in the third quarter proved to be the final nail in the coffin for any hopes of a Japanese comeback.
Gurjit also scored a hattrick in the 7-1 hammering of Kazakhs in the quarterfinals. She was supported by doubles from Deep Grace Ekka, now an experienced member of the squad and also Navjot. Moreover, it was Gurjit’s late and decisive goal that sealed a 2-0 victory over Malaysia in the group stages after Vandana Katariya had broken the stalemate a minute earlier. Indeed it was Gurjit all the way!
And not to forget Gurjit’s exploits against a strong Chinese team (the best team from Asia) where Navjot, Neha Goyal with a PC and captain Rani chipped in with a brilliant field goal as well. Navjot also put India in the lead just before half time in the finals after some good build-up play from the right flank. Interestingly, Gurjit scored just one (a sublime PC) out of the 10 goals in the tournament opener against Singapore! The other Kaurs – Navjot and Navneet enjoyed the party scoring a double each. Perhaps she was warming up for the real competitive games!
‘We worked a lot on creating PCs and Gurjit worked hard on converting PCs during our camps. We were also well prepared for a shootout situation as we were anticipating the knockouts to end in shootouts. All the preparation helped us in the finals,’ said an exultant Rani as she converted the goal in sudden death after Savita’s heroics to thwart the Chinese attempt.
The path ahead
There is the Men’s Final Hockey World League (HWL2017) in Bhubaneswar, Dec 1 to 10. It would be followed by the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and then the World Cup at the end of next year for both genders. The current momentum from the Asia Cup victories will definitely help the Indian team in the home tournament next month but the crucial factor is that we would be competing against teams which are ranked higher. Fans should not get carried away with our past laurels and realize the high level of competition in the upcoming tourneys.
As for the men’s team, we will be facing more tight encounters like the draw against Korea or the finale against Malaysia. I do not want to belittle their efforts in the Asia Cup, which is by no means an easy feat. Job well done but there is a more difficult road ahead! The team needs to address all weak areas especially the mistakes from the Asia Cup. For example, the chances upfront in goal like in the match against Korea. Penalty corner variations need to be worked out and so does the counter-attacking strategy needs to be polished. These victory has to be taken as a word of caution, no relaxation but perseverance and rigor instead!
Similarly, the women’s team is scheduled to tour Italy and Spain in an International Competition early December. Indian Eves (FIH Hero World Ranking (WR): 12) did really well to outclass higher ranked opponents in China (WR: 8) and Japan (WR: 11). India hit 7 past Kazakhstan to seal a Semifinal spot defeating Japan 4-2 in the semis thereafter and a 4-1 mauling of China earlier in the group stages. A sheroes nonetheless, there are better ranked teams to be encountered and we need to be mentally and physically prepared for the same.
Dilpreet: The next big thing
Amidst all of the hype and hoopla surrounding the Asia Cup, Punjab’s Dilpreet Singh came into the limelight emerging the top goalscorer in the recently concluded Sultan of Johor Cup (SOJC2017 – Jr. Men). He scored two against eventual champions Australia among the many breathtaking goals in what was his U-21 international debut tournament. He also added assists to his name thereby showing more maturity as a team player.
‘I didn’t feel any nervousness or pressure on my international debut. It was a different experience. I had only watched these teams (Australia and Great Britain) on television earlier. I enjoyed the challenge!’ ~ Dilpreet Singh.
The lad from Butala in Amritsar district was a delight to watch for not just fans but for the commentators as well! He is already being touted as the next big thing but will he get a chance in the highly competitive squad now that the seniors are back in fray? Or will Marijne be bold enough to try out a rookie youngster who doesn’t have much experience but brings freshness in the forward line that has been struggling to make the most of their chances upfront? All that the lad and his performance have done is put some pertinent questions for the head coach and team management to think of!
Similarly, it was great to see the Indian junior (men and women’s) squad participate in the Australian Hockey League (AHL) where they rubbed shoulder against some good quality teams. It is interesting to note that the average age of the women’s squad was just 17.3 years whereas all other teams had players that were around 23-24 years old. The pace at which the game is played and also fitness levels required at the top level would have been a crucial learning for these youngsters!
Lastly, a realistic top 5 place bettering their rank would be an ideal goal for the men’s team in the HWL 2017 finals. Whereas grooming more young players and exposure through more international tours against top teams for the women’s team is the way ahead. Here’s wishing both set of Indian hockey teams to end the year on a high!