It is just as well that India did not win the gold medal at the Asia Cup hockey competition in Ipoh on Sunday, for that would have triggered another round of hype as though the team had won the Olympic title.
Of more significance than the silver medal India won after a loss to Korea in the final was a spot in the next year’s World Cup at The Hague which would have been a huge relief to not just the stand-in coach Roelant Oltmans but also to the hockey fans.
True, the International Hockey Federation is still to officially confirm India’s presence in the World Cup, but with Australia and New Zealand, who are to participate in the Oceania Cup which also doubles up as a qualifying event, already assured of a trip to The Hague, India as the fourth reserve country gets the nod.
While it is a pity that every four years, India have to go through the heart-stopping qualifying process for berths in the Olympics and World Cup, the situation only reflects reality, which is that the former uncrowned kings of hockey have to scrap with fringe teams to get into the majors.
If this sad situation does not indicate the poor quality of hockey India have been playing in the past few years, then one might as well believe that we are getting closer to an Olympic medal!
As for Oltmans, he has no magic wand to turn things around overnight. He might be one of the top coaches in the world, but it is best to remember that his achievements have been as the coach of his national team, Holland. Hence, it is wise to keep this fact in perspective when hoping that he will pull Indian hockey out of the mire that it is in.
Overall, the Indian team looked good in the Asia Cup. There was a lot of dash and control in the manner in which the players went about their tasks. If anything, I thought the ball rotation looked slick, sharp and smart with far more speed than one had seen in the past. It was also heartening that the players resorted to ball possession as against attempting ill-advised attacks that would lead to turnovers.
But again, the old habit of defenders holding on to the ball instead of early release persists and it cost India the fourth goal in the final when a Korean midfielder snatched the ball from an indecisive defender to launch an attack that led to penalty corner conversion for the match-winner.
We might endlessly argue that umpire Grime blundered by penalizing defender Rupinder for a diving tackle that was as clean as a whistle with a penalty corner, but the damage was done much earlier when India needlessly conceded possession just inside their own half when a backpass would have averted danger.
Whatever, it matters little now, for there is no rewind button to undo the mistake, but hopefully, the Indians would have learnt the lessons, for the goal reminded me of India’s game against Poland in the league at the Sydney Olympics when we conceded possession with a minute left and when leading 1-0. Poland seized the chance to score an equalizer that knocked India, who needed a win, out of semi-final contention by forcing a 1-1 draw.
No doubt, India were not at full strength due to injuries and indisposition, but nevertheless, the performance in Ipoh was quite heart-warming, even granting that we had just three difficult matches (Korea in the league and final, and Malaysia in semi-final) and won two of them. Apparently, the fitness levels of the players have gone up, though they are best judged when India play the top teams like Holland, Germany and Australia.
After all, India had gone to London last year for the Olympics with some optimism, but returned home without winning a single match. This time around, it is best to entertain modest expectations rather than indulge in hype and hyperbole after every win while keeping in perspective the big picture which is the 2014 World Cup.
At this point in time, there seems to be plenty of young talent that I expect to mature in time for the 2016 Olympics and that augurs well for Indian hockey. The World Cup next year is far too close and in my book, India’s realistic target should be a finish in the 5-6 bracket, for that would open up opportunities to gain quality international exposure in the run up to the Rio Olympics.
At Ipoh, India took a baby step towards redemption and all the hard work lies ahead.