In the past couple of decades, Indian hockey is littered with tales of heartbreak. Tales of cracking under the pressure and throwing away all the good work in the closing moments of a high-pressure match. Fans (and even some players) have now reached a point where they are a nervous wreck if leading by a goal or two when entering the last few minutes of a big match. Last year, after the World Cup quarter-final in Bhubaneshwar, Netherlands forward Jeroen Hertzberger unwittingly put it perfectly – “Indian players need to realize a quarter lasts for 15 minutes and not 14 minutes, 55 seconds”.
In particular, this writer is still haunted by 2 such instances.
The first was the 2000 Sydney Olympics. All India needed was a win against rank outsiders Poland to qualify for the semi-finals for the first time since the gold-winning team at Moscow 1980. India had already beaten the likes of Argentina and Spain, and even drawn against Australia. But, we kept missing our chances and managed to score just 1 goal, before a Polish strike in the final 2 minutes brought about a draw, and plenty of tears. And, as it so happens, India has never come as close to an Olympic semi-final ever since.
The second such haunting instance is a lesser-known one, at the 2003 Champions Trophy in the Netherlands. After 62 minutes of brilliant hockey, India led the mighty hosts 3-0, and victory looked all but sealed. But, somehow, we conspired to concede four goals in the last 8 minutes! Personally, I remember that loss breaking me and it was really tough watching hockey for a few years after that, with the standard of Indian hockey also plummeting to new depths, culminating in the failure to even qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
But, most such heart-breaking tales refer to the men.
Yesterday, however, the women almost gave us a tale which would have haunted fans for decades, and could have severely set back Indian women’s hockey, just like the draw against Poland in 2000 set the men back immensely. Yes, thankfully, it wasn’t a tale of a last-minute goof-up. But, it was a familiar tale of underperforming and becoming overly defensive, when leading on the score-sheet (of course, this was a unique situation where they were practically playing a single 120-minute match over 2 days as opposed to 2 separate 60-minute matches).
After a jaw-dropping 5-1 victory on Friday, all the women needed to do was play normal hockey on Saturday. As the cricketers would say, just play their “natural game”. In fact, with such a huge lead, maybe it could have even unlocked a few more creative skills. But, unfortunately, the final eight minutes of the Friday game, where India went over-defensive and conceded their first goal, proved to be an ominous sign of things to come. And, in that fateful first half on Saturday, the Indian team seemed focussed on just protecting their massive lead.
Just like they had done on Friday, the USA came fast and hard in the first quarter. But, unlike Friday, they managed a goal in the first five minutes, and the Indian shoulders started dropping. And out came the negative tactics – the scoops and the time-wasting and hitting the ball out of bounds.
For those that may not know, the rule regarding a scoop, or an aerial ball, in hockey is – “Players must not approach within 5 metres of an opponent receiving a falling raised ball until it has been received, controlled and is on the ground. The initial receiver has a right to the ball. If it is not clear which player is the initial receiver, the player of the team which raised the ball must allow the opponent to receive it”.
What the above rule essentially means is that when a player scoops a ball, the first player to get in position to receive the scoop needs to be given space by the opponents. This rule is in place because 2 opposing players contesting to receive a scoop is considered dangerous play. Hence, once a player gets in position to receive the scoop, the others need to back away. More importantly, in case there are opposing players close to each other trying to receive the scoop, then the team that played the scoop in the first place needs to back away. As a result, the scoop is usually used only when a player sees a team-mate in clear space, so that she can receive the ball with relative ease, else the ball is going to be turned over to the opponents.
But, on Saturday, once the USA got that first goal, and even more so after the second goal, the Indians used scoops as a bad defensive tactic. The moment they got their sticks on the ball, which wasn’t too often to begin with and almost always in their own half, they would either hit out of bounds while trying to clear the ball or just scoop the ball as far they could. And, pretty much every one of those scoops was received by an American player. The result was that India just kept turning over the ball to USA again and again, who, led by Erin Matson and Kathleen Sharkey, kept steaming in with wave after wave of dangerous attacks.
The second quarter was probably the worst I have seen the Indian women play. Barring a short sequence (just after the 5 goal lead had been whittled down to just 1) when they showed their attacking skills and even won a penalty corner, India looked scared and lost for ideas. It was tough to believe that this was the same team which put 5 past the same opponents just the previous day, and incredibly tough to watch.
In hindsight, it was probably good that USA managed to equalize in the first half itself. It meant that India had no choice but to return to regular hockey in the second half, and the breather and the coach pep-talk during the break would have surely helped to do so.
There was nothing spectacular in the 3rd quarter, but the Indians had clearly turned over a new leaf.
The mindless scoop had been put away, and they were now holding on to the ball and looking to actually build attacks and score, as opposed to just defending. Of course, a slightly tired USA team after the heroics of the first half would have also helped. And, slowly but surely, the confidence came back and culminated in a brilliant goal from the captain and talisman of the team Rani Rampal in the 48th minute!
The celebration of that goal was a sight to behold.
It could be seen on the girls’ faces how much they needed it. The FIH and IOA president Narinder Batra was seen apparently running towards a TV screen to catch the replay. I myself have seen that goal multiple times now, and I can vouch that at the moment the ball goes past the goal line, the noise in the stadium breaks my TV speakers just a little bit.
With 12 minutes to play and riding the high of that brilliant goal, the Indians kept pushing for the next few minutes. But, once again, as we entered the final 7-8 minutes, the scoops and the defensive play were out again! The most egregious display of this tactic was in the 56th minute when, just after a USA penalty corner was overturned on video referral, Deep Grace Ekka just scooped the ball back to the opposition when taking the 16-yard free out.
Luckily, and thankfully, somehow the clocked ticked to zero and the Indians held on, booking their ticket to Tokyo without an all too familiar last-minute mishap and with a huge sigh of relief. As expressed by the coach Sjoerd Marijne himself, all’s well that ends well.
However, it was telling that from 5-5 to 6-5, there was not a single scoop played by the Indians, but before and after, it was scoops galore with every one of them being received by the opposition. I hope that Marijne doesn’t just ignore these shortcomings but evaluates and weeds them out so that we never play as badly as we did in the first half ever again. In other words, once the celebrations are over, the coach will need to ensure that the team that played the second half shows up in Tokyo, and not the team of the first half.
And also, please get rid of those mindless scoops.