For Indian hockey, the reference to London is a happier one now. In 2012, the men’s hockey team disgraced itself in the Olympics held in the English capital by finishing rock bottom and losing all of its matches.
Four years later, quite fittingly, it is in London that the team has partially redeemed itself by winning the silver medal at the Champions Trophy, which is India’s best result in this tournament since 1982 (when it won bronze). More important, this is also its best result in any major tournament in the 36 years since winning the gold in a depleted field at the 1980 Olympics.
The achievement also reaffirmed India’s positive progress since Roelant Oltmans took over as the coach of the national team last year during a period of turbulence. A bronze at the Hockey World League (HWL) finals in December was followed by a silver medal at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in April earlier this year. And now, another silver at the Champions Trophy.
Like the other competing nations, India rested a few key players like skipper Sardar Singh and penalty-corner specialist Rupinder Pal Singh. In their absence, while India produced a stellar team effort, these are the players who stood out in London.
SV Sunil (27, Forward)
If there is one player in the current squad who evokes memories of stick-weaving Indian hockey legends from the past, it is SV Sunil. He’s the dribbler, the mazy runner, the inspiration behind India’sbest offensive moves. At the Champions Trophy, he was simply scintillating, scoring once, assisting twice and earning a couple of penalty corners along the way too.
Against Germany in the opening game, he received the ball on the halfway line with his back towards goal, turned around his defender, chipped it forward over his stick, and carried the ball all the way to the goal-line before squaring it perfectly for Mandeep Singh to tap the ball in. It set the tone for the tournament. Against Great Britain too, in a crucial win, the Sunil-Mandeep combo produced a near carbon copy of the earlier goal.
Sunil is a great threat on the counter-attack. His presence on the pitch forces the opposition defenders to look over their shoulders and defend in greater numbers. The crowning glory of his tournament came against Korea when, following a one-two with forward Akashdeep Singh, he outfoxed the goalkeeper with brilliant stick-work to roll the ball into an empty net. A moment of class.
He was made vice-captain of the team before the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in April. In London, he played the role of a captain too. And he’s been putting in performances worthy of the tag.
Harmanpreet Singh (20, defender and drag-flicker)
Cool, composed and fearless, Harmanpreet has been the find of India’s last two tournaments. In London, he enhanced his reputation by being recognised as the Best Young Player of the Champions Trophy. It was his first senior award, which will sit well next to several he has already won with the junior team.
At only 20, he has a poise that belies his age. He remains calm in the face of opposition pressure, thereby fitting perfectly into Oltmans’ philosophy of building attacks from the back. He’s not shy of bursting forward or displaying his range of passing either. On several occasions, his pinpoint long passes were wasted by the forwards.
Harmanpreet converted a high-pressure penalty stroke against Great Britain. That a 20-year-old was handed this responsibility speaks volumes about his character. He was also the only Indian player to convert in the final penalty shootout. His drag-flicking ability largely took a backseat with VR Ragunath being preferred on penalty corners, but not before he arrowed one into the bottom corner against Germany.
PR Sreejesh (28, goalkeeper)
You could bank on Sreejesh to make this list over and over again at the end of any tournament he plays for the national team. His importance to the Indian team only increased when he sat out the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in April – a tournament in which the team’s back-up goalkeepers failed to impress.
In the final against Australia, the Wall of India, as Sreejesh is often called, made save after save to deny the world champions. For a significant period of time, it was Sreejesh versus Australia. The Kookaburras had 10 penalty corners and couldn’t score from any, primarily due to the Indian goalkeeper’s heroics.
In one incredible passage of play in the opening quarter, the Aussies earned four back-to-back penalty corners and Sreejesh denied them thrice. He kept India in the contest and came close to winning it in the shootout too.
However, it wasn’t all rosy for him. Against Belgium, Sreejesh let in two goals he would have been expected to save. Both of them went through his legs, one from a very tight angle. India lost the match 2-1 and it made progressing to the final a much tougher proposition.
With a huge gulf in ability between Sreejesh and India’s second-choice goalkeepers, let’s hope Oltmans can keep him in bubble-wrap till Rio is done and dusted.
Surender Kumar (22, defender)
Another young stalwart to burst into the team, Surender did not begin the tournament on a high note. He conceded a soft penalty corner inside the opening two minutes of India’s campaign, but recovered to produce some stellar defending.
His commitment to the Indian cause has been unquestionable. Throughout the tournament, you could see him stationed perfectly to thwart opposition attacks – whether it was to cut off crosses into the circle or to make goal-line clearances. He even produced a couple of fantastic last-gasp blocks. One of them, to deny a German forward, was so good that it even earned awe and applause from the opposition coach.
Surendar is one of three young players – along with Harmanpreet and Harjeet Singh – to have made a near seamless transition into the senior team.
Mandeep Singh (21, forward)
His return to goal-scoring form will give Oltmans a nice little headache ahead of the Rio Olympics. Mandeep was India’s top-scorer with three goals in the Champions Trophy but he remains a mercurial talent who blows hot and cold. On his bad days, you’ll see him miss a sitter from three yards – like he did against Germany which eventually cost India two points. On his good days, he can poach goals at will and also produce one like this.
On his bad days, though, he can disappoint badly. Against Great Britain, for instance, Mandeep failed to trap a simple pass with 20 seconds left on the clock. A schoolboy error. Had he got it right, he would’ve had an empty net to roll the ball into, since Great Britain had taken off their goalkeeper in search of an equaliser. It gave the opposition another crack at goal.
Nonetheless, Mandeep’s link-up with Sunil and his ability to find space in the circle was of great benefit to India in this tournament. Still only 21, he’s been in and out of the national team since making his debut three years ago. Perhaps Oltmans can truly harness his potential.
Akarsh Sharma is a Delhi-based writer who occasionally tweets here