Sometimes teams believe the hype and think they are better than they actually are. When a once-in-many-decades achievement comes around, there is understandable elation, relief, and satisfaction. But the problem emerges when one basks in its glory for too long.
The men’s hockey bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics seems to be one such example. A first podium finish in 41 years may have prompted players and the establishment into believing that they are back among the big guns of the game. But the World Cup on home soil, less than 18 months later, has disabused them of that notion after the hosts exited their own party even before the quarterfinal stage.
India is historically the most successful hockey nation at the Olympics, with eight gold medals. So, celebrating a bronze shows how far the mighty had fallen in the intervening period. They even failed to make the Games in Beijing in 2008.
Since then, they have been on a steady upward curve but to believe that they are at the level of modern hockey powerhouses such as Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, and of late Belgium would be fanciful.
India can be trusted to put in an irresistible performance every now and then – but not always throughout a game – but consistency is hardly their forte. Even in Tokyo, they suffered a heavy defeat to the Australians and secured the medal after a topsy-turvy, and often heart-stopping, encounter against the Germans.
Modern methods of coaching and training may have made India one of the fittest teams in the world with an enviable penalty corner battery, but that’s often not enough to go the whole way in major tournaments. Faltering at crucial moments, finishing issues and even experienced players not taking responsibility during a penalty shootout could be termed psychological drawbacks, and they were all evident in the quarterfinal playoff against New Zealand.
In India’s next match, a classification encounter against Japan, the team seemed totally transformed in the final two quarters as the East Asians were smashed 8-0. All the loose ends seemed to be tied up and all parts of the machine were purring, suggesting raising their performance in a high-stakes game may be the problem. The malaise also came to the fore in the last group game against Wales, a team made up of students and amateurs, when India had to win by a big margin to seal a direct berth in the quarterfinals. They looked too rushed and frenetic, devoid of any poise and control.
Skipper Harmanpreet Singh, one of the most feared drag-flickers in the game, cut a sorry figure in the group stages and the game against New Zealand, only to find his touch against Japan.
Australian coach Graham Reid, who guided the team to the Tokyo podium, would know that much work needed to be done even after that achievement to sustain the momentum. A culture of excellence can’t be created through one-off events, however significant they may be. And bronze medallists must remember that there were two teams that finished above them.
India wields a lot of monetary influence in the hockey world, as is evident from the fact that three of the last four men’s World Cups have been held in the country. It brings most of the big sponsors, has the biggest media coverage, spectator interest and viewership in the world. It would be the envy of many countries that have tasted much more success on the pitch in recent decades.
But the media machinery can often provide a distorted image of reality. India may have improved a lot over the last decade and a half, but they are certainly not world-beaters yet.
An example of a team rising through the ranks is Belgium. The Red Lions were among the third tier of hockey nations a little over a dozen years ago before making steady progress and are now both Olympic gold medallists and world champions, with a chance to retain the crown in Bhubaneswar today. That’s what sustained excellence is all about.
And as far as fighting spirit, never-say-die attitude, and the habit of raising their game when the chips are down are concerned, look no further than the German mentality monsters. They came back, virtually from the dead, twice in succession, to book a spot in the finals. Both these teams, as well as the Australians and the Dutch, are used to being in contention at the business end of big tournaments. Failing to do so may prompt some soul-searching; podium finishes are expected, and not celebrated too exuberantly.
These are the examples India must aspire to as they set the reset button. The Asian Games later this year provides a direct spot for the gold medallists at the Paris Olympics. South Korea finished above India at the World Cup, and teams like Malaysia – not to mention Pakistan – have given India grief in the past. So gold at Hangzhou is not a guarantee at all.
Indian hockey has had turbulent periods in the past, with frequent changes of coaching staff. Reid, if he stays in his role, and the hockey establishment in general, must ensure it’s not a case of one step forward and two steps back.