London: After it’s warmest day since 1976, London was a lot cooler 24 hours later on Thursday. A refreshing breeze and four quarter-finals made it a perfect setting for the Hockey World League (HWL) knockouts – beginning with the quarterfinals. The few Indian fans in the crowd, a couple of them wrapped in tricolour, patiently watched Argentina put Pakistan out of the semi-finals race, but little did they know that a similar fate awaited India.

Malaysia’s 3-2 win over India was a victory of desire, one which earned them a place in the 2018 World Cup. In the absence of any such incentives, India imploded, went down 0-2, recovered to 2-2, conceded lead again, lost 3-2 and then tried hiding behind an excuse.

The winning Malaysian goal, their third, came off a penalty corner that India contested with a video referral, but to no avail, and Razie Rahim scored off it. It left the Indian forwards banging and ricocheting off an 11-man defensive wall, only to rue an open goal missed by Ramandeep Singh, who, ironically, was India’s only scorer in the game.

Initially there were rumours of Indian coach Roelant Oltmans launching an official protest against the penalty-corner decision, but he rubbished that, though stood by his view that it cost India the game.

“In the end, it was a bit unlucky, the [penalty] corner we conceded, which was in my opinion not correct, and it was the one that went in. Sometimes it works like that.

“No [I haven’t launched a protest], it’s impossible, because of the rules. What’s unfair is that the ball played by the drag flicker was within 5 metres and above the knee, besides the ball travelled outside the circle, so I see no reason why it should be a re-take and not a free hit for the defence,” Oltmans reckoned.

Unpredictable India

Despite their rise in FIH rankings, it’s still difficult to predict which India will turn up on the pitch. On Thursday, it was a team that played like India of the 20th century.

If there were any tactics, they weren’t apparent. Finishing became an issue, for the same set of forwards who had scored 12 of the 15 goals so far in the tournament. Midfield play left a lot to be desired, which best highlighted in the comment of famous hockey writer Patrick Rowley.

“Your great teams have played brilliantly through the middle, but today I could see them moving only through the sides,” Rowley said during a conversation.

Was it the mental block against Malaysia that resurfaced from the 0-1 defeat at Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in May?

“Absolutely nothing to do with it,” Oltmans replied to the question. “Had Malaysia outplayed us, then it would have been something different, but that was not the case. If you look at the possession in the third and fourth quarter, then it’s very high numbers for us. We need to create more [goals] from those situations and that’s where we failed.”

Or was it the lack of desire for India, with a place in HWL Finals and 2018 World Cup already in the bag as hosts?

“It is always difficult to say,” Oltmans said.

“Of course, it is different for a team that knows it has to win to get somewhere and for a team that is already there. [However] There is no relaxation. That is not the right word for it. Somewhere deep, far away, you know you have already qualified. But it is not something you bring to the ground, because you always want to win, that is what it is all about,” the Dutchman added.

Missing structure

It won’t be wrong to analyse that at crucial moments during the match, especially at the start and during the last 12 minutes, structure went missing from the Indian game. Towards the end, the ticking clock added to the pressure.

“We gave the initiative at the beginning of the game to Malaysia. That’s the only thing, I can say, wasn’t really good,” the India coach opined.

But it can’t be accepted as an excuse for defeats that keep annoying the Indian hockey fan. If the team continues to let itself down, especially facing opponents the fans don’t expect them to lose against, then Indian hockey won’t win back the support it has lost over the years.

India are ranked highest (6th) in the world among teams from Asia, but it needs to show on the field as well. If that requires a change of coach or dropping old warhorses, so be it. Bite the bullet and get on with it. Defeat, when least expected, will not be accepted.

Talking about change of coach, Oltmans may have done a good job to build the team and take it to where it is now. But if a player has certain shelf life, so does a coach. It takes nothing away from what Oltmans has done, but if his best is behind him, then Hockey India needs to recognise and accept it. And it’s not just with the coach job, let it be known to everyone in that bracket – or at least put them on notice.

On Thursday, when it was 2-2, India’s play in the final quarter did not change tactically. Rather it was Malaysia who began aggressively, got the PC, scored and then fell back to defend in numbers. While their strategy was evident, India just kept attacking and missing, similar to what we saw in Ipoh less than two months ago. The learning from there was missing. That’s where Oltmans was found out.

Mandeep’s knack of scoring was lost somewhere, but he wasn’t told to try doing things differently to get his touch back. Vikas Dahiya had done well in the first 30 minutes, but Oltmans remained stubborn with his tactics of switching ‘keepers at half-time. Not that Akash Chikte did awful, but Dahiya was looking confident in the post, and could have been asked to continue.

Or if the coach thought otherwise, with Dahiya having conceded two goals, why was he not replaced earlier? It again highlighted the lack of proactive approach from India’s think-tank.

“It’s not our approach to play defensively. We want to score goals. I always say we have to score three goals to win a match, today we scored only two, so it was not enough,” said Oltmans.

Sorry, Mr. Coach! That’s a lame excuse. Why we couldn’t get the winning goal and they did is what needs to be looked into, and there, India was tactically outplayed despite having more of the possession.

Waiting to complete media obligations after the defeat against Malaysia, captain Manpreet Singh was down on his knees with a hanging head. He was hurt, and should be. The team had disappointed its countrymen and every player should feel the way Manpreet did. It was unacceptable.

And somewhere in Malaysia, or probably Australia, one man named Terry Walsh must be having a quiet laugh. The former India coach, who was ousted after a fallout with Narinder Batra, is currently overseeing hockey in Malaysia in technical capacity.

India now play Pakistan in the crossover match for the 5/8 position on Saturday. The winner of that match will go on to play for the 5/6 position.