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Worst-ever finish for a host — What caused India's Hockey World Cup debacle?

The Indian team created an unwanted record by registering the worst-ever finish by a host nation in the Hockey World Cup.

Indian Hockey Team

The Indian hockey team


Abhijit Nair

Updated: 29 Jan 2023 1:13 PM GMT

India, on Saturday, earned a joint 9th-placed finish along with Argentina at the 2023 Men's Hockey World Cup held in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela, following a 5-2 win over South Africa in their final classification game.

The Indian team led by Harmanpreet Singh, in the process, created an unwanted record by registering the worst-ever finish by a host nation in the 15-edition old Men's Hockey World Cup.

The men in blue broke their own record of 8th placed finish in the 2010 New Delhi World Cup, which it jointly held with Malaysia (2022 Kuala Lumpur) and Argentina (Buenos Aries 1978).

Having clinched a historic bronze medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics just over a year and a half ago, India's early exit from the 2023 Hockey World Cup in front of the home crowd was nothing short of a major debacle.

Hosting the World Cup for the third time in the past four editions, this was probably India's best bet of regaining the lost glory in the global tournament. The last time an Indian men's team finished on the podium at a World Cup was way back in 1975 when they were crowned the champions for the first time.

With an excellent combination of youth and experience, India was expected to at least reach the semifinal in Odisha. Graham Reid's boys started on a positive note as well, further increasing the expectations of fans and pundits alike.

Playing in front of a jam-packed Birsa Munda International Hockey Stadium in Rourkela, India eased to a 2-0 victory against Spain in the first match. There were shortcomings in the way India operated in the World Cup opener, but goals from Amit Rohidas and Hardik Singh meant that the right questions were never quite raised.

When India were held to a goalless draw in the next match against England, it was hailed as a thriller. All the missed chances to score and register an outright win remained brushed under the carpet, mainly because Harmanpreet Singh and co. were still in contention to earn a direct quarterfinal berth.

But, that never happened.

India were left exposed in their final group stage encounter against World Cup debutant Wales. In a match where they were required to win big, India failed to score in the opening quarter.

They even surrendered a two-goal lead within two minutes as Wales equalised in the dying moments of the third quarter. They eventually required an Akashdeep Singh special to pull them through to a victory. Hardik Singh, who picked up an injury during the game against England, was thoroughly missed.

The crossover contest against New Zealand was no different. India not only squandered a two-goal advantage twice against the Black Sticks, but failed to close off the match in the penalty shootout despite multiple chances.

India were knocked out of the World Cup after a shock loss. It was a disaster.

No mental conditioning coach

Minutes after the exit, Indian coach Graham Reid rued about the lack of a mental conditioning coach with the team, in a press conference.

"We need to do something different perhaps. Following this, we will work on how we can get a mental coach involved. I think that is an important part of the future of the team," Reid said.

While the coach raised a valid point, the question remained why did no one from the team management or the federation think about the need of a psychologist or a mental conditioning coach going into a tournament as big as the World Cup? After all, it is a norm in today's day and age.

It is all the more surprising considering that the Indian hockey team is certainly not new to the concept of a mental conditioning coach. The team which competed at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics had a psychologist with them.

Just when his statement started gathering steam in the media, Graham Reid stepped forward to take the blame upon himself.

"It (requirement of a mental conditioning coach) has come up for discussion before but I did not really think it was needed at that point. I thought, I had enough experience to be able to impart the sort of stuff we have been talking about," Reid said after India defeated Japan in the 9-16th place classification match.

"It was like when do we start this process (having a mental conditioning coach on board), but it did not happen. I take responsibility for that," he added.

Fun fact: Reid had also called for the appointment of a mental conditioning coach when he was first appointed the coach of the Indian team way back in 2019.

While this can be pointed out as a major reason behind India's early exit from the World Cup, can it really be pinned on it? Not really.

The team was doing well in the absence of a mental conditioning coach in the tournaments prior to the World Cup. Then what transpired in the quadrennial event?

Well, that is something the players, team management, and the national federation need to ponder about in the next few days.

Is the team selection to be blamed?

Why did the team looked like a pale shadow of itself in the absence of Hardik Singh against Wales and New Zealand? Why did the defensive unit blow hot and cold in the tournament?

How did Harmanpreet Singh, who was scoring drag flicks for fun, completely lose his touch in the World Cup? Was it the additional workload of being named the captain of the team? How did he of all people missed to score in a penalty shootout, which would have sealed India a quarterfinal berth?

Where were Harmanpreet's drag flicking backups?

Going into the World Cup, there was lot of focus on the Indian captain. India were expected to rely heavily on him to convert penalty corners, but coach Graham Reid was not worried.

"We are not overdependent on Harmanpreet. We have four or five more players who are all world-class drag flickers. We have multiple variations read for the World Cup," the coach had told The Bridge ahead of the tournament.

But, none of it actually worked when it mattered.

So, did Hockey India mess up with the squad selection then?

Would the team have advanced more in the presence of someone like Jugraj Singh, Dilpreet Singh, or Araijeet Hundal? There is certainly no way to know this.

Should coach take the fall?

Well, is the coach to be blamed for all of this?

There have been murmurs of a change in reins, but is that really what the Indian hockey team needs in an Olympic qualification year?

Reid's contract as the head coach is supposed to run until the 2024 Paris Olympics. But, the coach himself seemed to be in doubt about it.

"I have signed the contract through Paris (Olympics). But, you know, we will be reviewing, I assume, at the end of this World Cup," Reid had said after the Japan match.

The Indian hockey setup was infamous for its chopping and changes of coaches before they settled in on Graham Reid. The Australian had led the team to newer heights. One bad tournament, surely, does not change that.

Where is Robin Arkell - the strength and conditioning coach at Tokyo Olympics?

But, where is the man who helped him achieve the historic high at Tokyo, Robin Arkell?

Robin Arkell might not be a well known man to the fans. But he played a major role as the strength and conditioning coach for India during the Tokyo Olympics.

He, however, was not retained post the Olympics and joined Germany three months ahead of the 2023 World Cup. Germany is all set to play the final against defending champions Belgium on Sunday.

Surely the fitness of Indian players has not deteriorated since Arkell left, but was it the right move to not extend his contract?

Road Ahead

It is not as if India were abysmal in the World Cup. If one looks back, it is just a couple of quarters - one each against Wales and New Zealand, which derailed their campaign in front of the home crowd.

The men in blue scored 22 goals and conceded just 7 in six matches at the World Cup. Now that's a very impressive stat!
But none of it matters at the end.

For now, India needs to go back into the drawing board and introspect. There are a lot of questions unanswered. Graham Reid alongside his boys and Hockey India need to find out the solutions soon.

With the Asian Games just around the corner and Olympics qualification at stake, 2023 is just getting started. India cannot allow the World Cup setback to pull them back.

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