2018 HOCKEY WORLD CUP: WILL 43 YEARS OF HURT END?
It was the 16th day of the 6th month of 2016. India were losing 0-4 to their nemesis Australia in the Lee Valley Hockey & Tennis centre. V R Raghunath & Mandeep Singh scored a goal each, 4 minutes apart, to make it a very interesting last 11 minutes. Australia, though, comfortably held the Blue Sticks at bay. This meant that India would finish their group stage campaign of the penultimate Champions Trophy with 7 points.
Australia were already through to the final as toppers. Germany & South Korea were already eliminated. Great Britain, the hosts, & Belgium could still go through the final. The equation was simple for the hosts: win and you're in. Thanks to Raghu's & Mandeep's goals, India's goal difference was now -1. Had India lost 4-0, Belgium also would have gone through if they had simply won but now they needed to win by 3 goals to enter the final. Every. Goal. Is. Crucial. Belgium went 3-1 up and were furiously chasing a 4th goal. This meant holes in the back & Britain picked them off scoring 2 late late goals in 2 minutes. 3-3 with a minute to go. A goal for the home team would see them through to the final. The longest minute, for India, ended goal-less and India were through to their first ever Champions Trophy final.
A fantastic achievement was awfully described by the dumbasses at rediff.com as a back-door entry to the final. How in the hell was it a "back door" entry when India finished 2nd, ahead on points? Utterly poor journalism. Anyway, India learnt all the right lessons from the 2-4 thrashing and re-grouped for the final. P. R. Sreejesh single-handedly kept wave after wave of Aussie attacks at bay. A thrilling match ended 0-0. India were awful in the shoot-out that the Kookaburras won easily 3-1. A disappointing loss yet an exceptionally successful tournament. It was only India's 2nd ever podium finish, the first in 34 years, and the 1st silver medal at the Champions Trophy. The expectations of a first ever podium finish at the Olympics for 36 years were raised.
Unfortunately, India floundered in Rio. After huffing & puffing to beat Ireland, India played very well against Germany only to lose to a literally last second winner. The Men In Blue outlasted Argentina 2-1 surviving by the skin of their teeth. India had 7 penalty corner opportunities to score the equalizer against Netherlands in the last minute but failed to convert a single one. A tame draw against Canada followed which put India in 4th place out of 6. A win would have put India 3rd and avoided a meeting with their 2nd bogey side, Belgium, in the quarterfinals. Belgium duly beat India in the last 8 and thus ended India's 1st knockout match at the Olympics for 36 years.
India followed an eerily similar script in 2018. After promoting Junior World Cup winning coach Harendra Singh as Senior coach, India finished 2nd in the Champions Trophy, losing just once to Australia. This was followed by yet another heartbreaking loss in a shoot-out. A second silver in a row. The 1st silver was a happy silver but this one was painful. At the Asian Games, India scored a barely believable 76 goals in the group stages and were eliminated by our 3rd bogey side, Malaysia, in the semifinals on, you guessed it, a penalty shoot-out. India subsequently re-grouped to beat Pakistan to win the bronze. It was India's 9th win in 10 matches against our arch-rivals. So what if we don't win medals, we keep thrashing Pakistan whenever we meet them.
A somewhat experimental side at the Asian Champions Trophy, comfortably reached the final but the trophy had to be shared with our eternal enemies after Muscat, of all places, saw a torrential downpour. Thus, ended India's final set of competitive fixtures before her biggest tournament in recent years: The 2018 Hockey World Cup at Bhubaneshwar.
Harendra Singh made tough decisions. He dropped the lightning fast S V Sunil due to age and injury. He also ruthlessly dropped India's top penalty corner specialist Rupinder Pal Singh simply because it was possible for him to get injured during the tournament. Biren Lakra was back after a long gap. The great Sardar Singh announced his retirement after not expecting to make it to Bhubaneshwar. Young striker Gurjant Singh was also dropped. So was Fox-in-the-Box Ramandeep Singh. The forward line has the precocious teen Dilpreet, 21 year old Simranjeet & 23 year old "veterans" Mandeep & Akashdeep. A very talented but inconsistent forward line that can break down the best defences.
The midfield is anchored by captain magnificent Manpreet Singh and the calm Chinglensana. Their backups are junior world champions Sumit and Nilakanta Sharma. The central defence is anchored by veteran Biren and probably India's best ever talent in the last 25 years: Harmanpreet Singh. Sure, we had Jugraj Singh back in the early aughts but he lacked Harmanpreet's discipline and drive. The pair are flanked by Kothajit Singh, Surender Kumar and yet another junior champion Varun Kumar. As many as 6 Junior World Champions will play the Senior tournament in Bhubaneshwar.
Last but not least is the custodian: P R Sreejesh. India will need him to be at his absolute best for a medal position. After helping India win a podium finish at the 2014-15 World Hockey League against Netherlands in the shoot-out, Sreejesh failed in India's 3 subsequent shoot-outs, twice at the Champions Trophy and once at the Asian Games. Other than that he has been brilliant as ever in regulation, always making spectacular saves and interventions. He's the only member of the squad born in the 80s, making him the oldest player of the squad. His experience will be crucial in guiding what is essentially a very young side. His back-up is 21 year old Krishan Bahadur who has ensured Sreejesh isn't really missed whenever the veteran has been rested.
Finally, a word about the manager. Harendra Singh is one of those obsessed with the sport coaches. He did a fine job at the Junior World Championships. He came up with great game plans with our women's team at the Commonwealth games. He also did a super job at the Champions Trophy in Breda. India lost just the one match to, who else, Australia 2-3 but it has not been smooth sailing since. In both the semifinal and the bronze medal match against Pakistan, the Indian team was strangely subdued and conservative. A bit of aggression & verve would have killed the ties before the 3rd quarter but it's alright. Everyone goes through teething problems. Let's hope the coach has learnt his lessons. Rumours that the whimsical, mad men who run Indian hockey aren't really enamoured with him is making his already tough job even tougher.
India are grouped with Belgium, Canada & South Africa. The group winners automatically qualify for the quarterfinals. The 2nd & 3rd place teams play a round of 16 match. Unless the hosts massively underperform, they should reach the knockout stages with ease. The match against Belgium could be a quasi-knockout match to see who plays one match less. It is quite possible that India might have to face 2 or maybe even 3 teams out of Belgium, Netherlands & Germany, in the knockout stages, to reach the final. If we manage to cross this minefield, the reigning Olympic champion Argentina or the likelier opponent, the bogeist of our bogey sides, 2 times defending champion Australia await us in the final.
That is a tough tough ask even for a battle-hardened side. It is even tougher for a side whose average age is 23 years and 10 months. Will this talented young side, egged on by the home crowd, match what its Juniors did 2 years ago in Lucknow? Or at the very least finish in the top 4 after 43 years? Let's all hope they do! Keep Calm & Jai Śrī Rām!