London: Where Hockey India is concerned, enough said about the “process”. It was the same before the Rio Olympics last year – building towards a top-five finish. But, it came a cropper. India finished fourth in the group stage, thanked the format for reaching the quarters, lost there and finished eighth. Alarmingly, it’s following a similar trend towards the 2018 World Cup next year: following a “process” with pot holes that they still can’t manage to drive past.

Lost to Malaysia, lost to Canada, failed to reach the semi-finals – a poor sixth-place finish at the Hockey World League Semi-final was surely not on Hockey India’s list of objectives. And the reasons for a jaded performance must be inspected.

Things weren’t too bad until the pool stage, where India lost only to the tournament winners and a much superior Netherlands. Before that, they had beaten Scotland, Canada and Pakistan comfortably to secure a place in the quarters. Then came two close 2-3 defeats – first to Malaysia in the quarterfinals and then to Canada in 5/6 playoff game. And with that came some tough questions.

Struggle against underdogs

It was like distributing World Cup invitations to Malaysia and Canada. Ramandeep Singh missed a last-minute goalmouth chance against Malaysia and India could convert only 2 out of 10 penalty corners against Canada.

Is it the pressure of knockouts that gets to Indian players? At least the recent trend suggests so. In May India lost to Malaysia at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in a game they had to win to reach the final. Two months later, the same happened in London.

Losing to Netherlands is digestible, because everyone who understands hockey knows India still aren’t there when compared to teams like the Dutch, Germany and Australia. With Argentina and Belgium having a foot inside that group, the task for India is only getting tougher. And it will become a race against time if India can’t sort themselves out against teams ranked below them, while the management keeps harping about the ‘process’.

“I have said many times before that we go from three different tournaments with different players (pool of 33): Azlan Shah, here and the tour in August. After that we will come with the 18 players that will be the strongest team during the Asia Cup and the HWL Finals. So let’s wait and see,” said an adamant Roelant Oltmans.

But where the coach must introspect is that it will do no good to the confidence of India as a team, whatever the squad, if we don’t win enough. Of course, India have climbed up to No. 6 and left other Asian teams well behind, but the trophies at world stage are still missing.

But as it happened in the defeat against Canada, having 20 shots at goal and converting just two isn’t a show of superiority. Canada had just four shots at goal and three of those went in. That’s what wins you matches.

Of India’s 25 goals in the tournament, 13 came in one-sided contests against a poor Pakistan, who India beat twice in the tournament: 7-1 and 6-1.

Comparison to the junior team

It will make for an interesting case study comparing the difference in approach of Harendra Singh, former Junior India coach, and Oltmans. Harendra, like Oltmans now, also had a pool of players to groom from 2014 to 2016. But while Harendra did that quietly in a chair, the recent Oltmans appears like a man who has crushed paper balls all around him. In simple language, he appears confused.

At one instance he admitted of complacency in London with a place in the HWL Finals and World Cup assured for India as hosts, and the other he denied that outright.

To sample that, compare the following set of statements.

After defeat against Malaysia:

  “Somewhere deep, far away, you know you have already qualified.”    

After defeat against Canada:

“I totally don’t agree with that. It’s nonsense what you are saying.”

As things stand right now, it shows Harendra knew what he was doing and had his plan-book neatly organised. Oltmans has, of late, looked disorganised, confused and all at sea with due respect to the tactical acumen of the Dutchman.

It will be no salvation or redemption for Oltmans or the team to win the Asia Cup in October, where India’s superiority over every team, except Malaysia, is almost set in stone. But if they can repeat their podium finish from last HWL this December, that will be counted as progress, not the favourable statistics that Oltmans keeps reminding after every embarrassing loss.

How the players fared

Mandeep Singh, player of the tournament at Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, had a tournament to forget with just two goals in 7 matches. Ramandeep Singh and Akashdeep Singh showed a lot of promise with six and five goals respectively, but failed to deliver when it mattered the most.

If there’s one forward who looks to be on his way out for the next tour, it’s SV Sunil, who remained a shadow of himself in London.

Full-back Harmanpreet Singh ended with six penalty-corner goals, and India had seven conversions in all from 25 PCs. But the dragflicker seemed overburdened in the end, missing Rupinder Pal Singh and VR Raghunath. Rupinder flew back from London with an injury while Raghunath is mysteriously not in the pool of 33 players.

In the midfield, captain Manpreet Singh stood out, while junior World Cup-winning captain Harjeet Singh’s performance remained a flash-in-the-pan. Where India were dealt a blow was when Sardar Singh was called for questioning at a police station, following an old complaint by his former girlfriend and alleged fiancée, the British-Indian hockey player Ashpal Bhogal.

It seemingly took the sting out of Sardar’s game. The veteran, who was making his presence felt until the 7-1 win against Pakistan, went off the boil with a lot of non-hockey stuff weighing on his mind.

The weakened Indian post, with regular captain and star goalkeeper PR Sreejesh also recuperating, held itself well until the pressure matches. Custodians Akash Chikte and Vikas Dahiya made ample statements to contest for a place as Sreejesh’s backup in the dugout.

“It’s good to see because everyone in India was very much concerned the moment Sreejesh got injured in Malaysia,” said Oltmans. “What will happen? Do we have any young keepers who can replace him? These boys (Chikte and Dahiya) have shown that they have the talent, not the experience yet, to replace him. That’s what they are doing.”

What next?

Introspection. What went wrong? Why it went wrong? What’s required to correct it? It’s important that these telling defeats aren’t forgotten as “part of the process” and those in power and good books are not allowed to find scapegoats to secure their cushy jobs. Winning is part of the process. Learning is part of the process. Learn from the defeats but don’t accept them.

And the team must feel bad and be mindful that they will play the HWL Finals this year and the World Cup in 2018 only because they are the hosts. It wasn’t earned on the field.