It was a god-sent opportunity. England reaching the semi-finals had opened up an extra World Cup spot. So India had to win not both but just one of their fifth-eighth placement matches. A No 6 finish doesn’t sound great but would have been enough to reach the 2018 World Cup. And had India beaten Japan at the Hockey World League Semi-finals in Johannesburg on Thursday, they would have been assured of it. But that didn’t happen. India lost 0-2 and are now left with the task of winning the Asia Cup in October for a ticket to the World Cup.

The door may not be fully shut on India, but reaching the World Cup from HWL would have tick-marked an important objective. For Japan, it was a revenge of sorts. In Antwerp two years ago, India had beaten the Japanese women 1-0 to qualify for the Rio Olympics after 36 years.

It’s a known fact that India’s woes in women’s hockey have only swelled over the years. In contrast, for Japan, World Cup qualification was a confidence booster as the hosts of 2020 Olympics.

Frustratingly, like in the previous matches at the Johannesburg event, the Indian team was found out on fitness and speed. Despite assurances by new coach Sjoerd Marijne, the team’s fitness leaves a lot to be desired and continues to be the most evident differentiator on a competitive scale. But that is not the only area of concern.

Missing assertive players

Barring goalkeeper Savita, none of the Indian players left an impact in Johannesburg. Skipper Rani Rampal and Vandana Katariya showed flashes of their brilliance but failed to do that consistently to make a difference. And former captain Ritu Rani has been a shadow of herself since making a comeback.

It must be mentioned here that without Deepika Thakur in the squad, India missed a major weapon. The veteran of two World Cups, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games each was the game-changer in India’s Asian Champions Trophy win last year. Thakur, a veteran of over 150 caps, not only sorts out India’s defence but also makes an incisive difference to India’s midfield play.

It was almost the same with Anuradha Thokchom’s absence in attack as India not only lacked teeth but also kept losing possession in advantageous positions to concede turnovers.

Savita was the only player who stood out in that aspect. Her skillful goalkeeping kept India in the contest but no team can risk being over-reliant on its last line of defence, especially when forwards don’t score to make up for it. In six matches so far, India have scored just three goals while conceding 13.

They are now left to play Ireland for the seventh-eighth place on Saturday.

Fitness a disappointing disparity

Before the tournament, coach Marijne had said, “Nowadays we can measure everything. The girls are fitter, faster, stronger. That’s what we see with all the results and tests we are doing.”

Sorry, coach, but whatever little be the progress in terms of fitness, it isn’t showing on the field. Speed on counter-attacks and fall-backs remains conspicuously slow in comparison to most opponents. A forward should become the first line of defence upon losing possession, but Indian players don’t seem to have the recovery speed to execute that skill.

Fitness-measuring paraphernalia may reflect improvement but unless it becomes evident in matches, it will remain the most discernible inadequacy for Indian women’s hockey team.

The best way to improve is to play more, and against quality opposition. Hockey India has done well to address that issue in women’s hockey, but the numbers should increase further.

Before the Asia Cup in October, which India must win to qualify for the World Cup, the team will tour the Netherlands from September 1-16. But before that, there’s nothing on HI’s roster for the women’s team. While players do need time-off to recover, the gaps can be reduced, especially when you are playing catch-up on world stage.

But the gaps may only grow further, considering India’s pull-out from the Hockey Pro League. FIH’s new Olympic qualifying tournament is set to begin in 2019 and will run from January to June every year. If the Indian team is left high and dry for half of the year, it’s only going to make matters worse.