In Ipoh, Japan’s breakneck speed almost clipped India’s wings. The impala-like swift Japanese had the Indians on tenterhooks. It was like India got a taste of their own medicine – counter-attacking hockey.
That India were saved and eventually won through Mandeep Singh’s hat-trick is a different story. But in the past, such games, usually between India and Pakistan, brought crowds to the edge of their seats with one counter-attack after the other, much like punches being thrown in a boxing bout. Of late, Indian forwards may have run out of some of that sting, but don’t mistake it for declining skills. It’s being done on purpose.
India have cut down on their traditional attacking style to play “dominant hockey”. That’s how coach Roelant Oltmans explained the change. But is it producing enough field goals? The jury is out on that.
Barring Mandeep, who was the joint Player of the Tournament in Malaysia for his five goals, other Indian forwards cut a sorry figure. Though Akashdeep Singh, Talwinder Singh and SV Sunil were also on the scoresheet, it happened only once for each of them during the entire tournament.
All of them are in the squad touring Germany and England, with Ramandeep Singh the fifth specialist forward. But if coach Oltmans is to be believed, don’t expect them spearheading end-to-end hockey on June 18, when India take on Pakistan in the Hockey World League Semi-Final in London.
“Counter attack is not anymore the style of play that we are playing.” Oltmans did not mince too many words when speaking to Scroll.in. “Earlier we were only going for counter attacks but nowadays we play much more dominant hockey where we have, by far more, possession, which also ensures opponents are defending much more than they did in the past.”
He added, “In the past they were not too much afraid of India, nowadays they are. They play a lot half-court defence with many players in their own half and even in their own 25-yard line towards the goal, which means there will be less space.”
But words like “dominant” and “afraid” get lost in translation somewhere when the Indian team fails to outdo Australia even after taking the lead and are unable to score in a must-win game against minnows Malaysia. Both these results pushed India out of the reckoning for the final at Sultan Azlan Shah.
To win at the international level, you have to bite the bullet when required. SV Sunil had a forgettable season-opener in Malaysia. Not only was he easily dispossessed, his control and speed was not there and the release was defective most of the times. But he still managed to get a ticket to Germany and England.
Oltmans agreed with the observation, but added that Sunil is working himself back into top form. “In the past he lost possession too often from my point of view or his final pass was not good,” the coach said. “But now he has really improved. He slows down in the correct way, brings the ball to others to assist them in scoring goals.”
Talking about nitty-gritties, Oltmans also mentioned the awareness aspect of the forwards while stitching a move together. According to the Dutch coach, his current strikers lacked this trait and were trying to fix it.
“One of things is that many times the forwards are too much focused on their own game, and they don’t realise the position of the fellow players,” he said. “That is one of the aspects we are working on.”
Going against own strengths
Cutting back to counter-attacks, it appears disconcerting when a team decides to not play to its strengths – and launching counters has been one of India’s traditional strong points. Turn the clock back and it was a sizzling display of counter-attacking hockey that helped India roar back from 2-4 down to beat Pakistan 7-4 during the 2003 Champions Trophy in Netherlands. The trio of Deepak Thakur, Prabhjot Singh and Gagan Ajit Singh were in pristine form and outran Pakistan in 20 minutes of brilliant hockey.
However, credit where due must be given. Results have improved under Oltmans – whether as coach or high performance director, wherein India won the 2014 Asian Games gold, Hockey World League bronze and their maiden Champions Trophy silver last year.
The coach ended with a promise that he hasn’t given up on attacking hockey altogether. “Still, if there are opportunities for a counter-attack, we go all out,” he said. “But apart from that, we have developed a different style of play, so that we can also create goal-scoring opportunities from different situations than only from the counter-attacks.”
The Indian team landed in Dusseldorf on Monday for a three-nation invitational tournament with hosts Germany and Belgium. After that, they will fly to London for the Hockey World League Semi-Final beginning June 15.