It wasn’t very clear, before the Hockey World League Final began, what to expect from this talented and, yet, inexperienced Indian squad – that fires one day but flops the next.
After the tournament’s end, too, it isn’t very clear whether Indian hockey fans should be content with the team’s bronze medal or be annoyed for them not performing up to their potential.
There wasn’t one charismatic forward who stood out for scoring goals, or one midfielder who made the maximum assists in the tournaments. It was a cohesive effort from the team that relied on its counter-attacking abilities to get to the semis. But these set of players were more impressive than the others:
The end of a wait. When the first-choice player is injured or unable to play for other reasons, it gives the opportunity to a reserve who is usually biding his time on the sidelines. But along with the opportunity also comes the pressure to live upto the level of the player he or she is about to replace.
So, to fill in for PR Sreejesh, perhaps one of the best goalkeepers in the world, wouldn’t have been easy for Akash Chikte. But the goalkeeper’s efforts throughout the tournament didn’t make India badly miss Sreejesh.
During the sudden death against Belgium, with thousands at the Kalinga Stadium and many more watching from their TV sets and mobile screens on the edge of their seats, Chikte advanced to deny Arthur van Doren and created the opportunity for an Indian victory. This moment of audacity during a make-or-break scenario was perhaps a revelation for India that they aren’t, after all, so dependent on Sreejesh.
The Indian skipper wasn’t at his best. There isn’t a goal that will quantify his contribution to his team. He didn’t even get a moment as heroic as Chikte’s. But when he was dismissed off the pitch for an aggressive tackle of the Argentinian forward Lucas Vila, his absence was conspicuous.
The most prominent and the strongest of India’s game was their counter-attack and often it started with Manpreet’s dispossession of the opposition’s forward. For the 25-year-old, who played his 200th international during the tournament, the chances his team created even against the mightiest of the teams would please him.
But he’d rue more the failure to convert many of those. For, if they had, the metal of India’s medal might have been of a dearer kind.
In this Indian squad, which is on the cusp of transformation, SV Sunil is the elder statesman from whom the many youngsters in the side can learn from. But Sunil, 28, will be well aware that a drop in his level will result in one of them taking his place in the side.
For a team that thrives on speed and counterattack, he is perhaps their fastest forward. The opening goal against Germany might be the only time his name figured on the scoresheet this tournament, and there were at least a couple of occasions where he missed opportunities that the best teams rarely provide.
But the runs he made in the dying minutes of the fourth quarter showed dedication, the dives he put in to capitalise on half-chances were examples of his desperation to score. The one goal he scored in the tournament – against Germany in the bronze-medal match – will not satisfy the Asian Hockey Federation’s Player of 2016.
One can, hence, expect him to be a bigger threat in India’s upcoming assignments in 2018.
This isn’t a player who is at his best yet. And that’s good. If this youngster, hailing from Amritsar’s outskirts, can play this well when not having reached his maximum potential, then he’d be an indispensable asset of the team in the coming years.
Harmanpreet seems to read well the advances of a forward – for he wanted to be one himself when he started playing a few years earlier. The ferocity of his strokes makes evident his strength that he acquired while trying to drive a tractor in his village. India will benefit a lot more from Harmanpreet’s drag-flicks than the two goals in this tournament.
Another defender who gave a good account of himself – except the penalty-corner misses against Argentina in the semi-final – was this 27-year-old lanky defender from Faridkot. But unlike Harmanpreet, who is getting to his best, Rupinderpal, after a six-month injury layoff, was looking to return there.
“It’s the toughest phase of my career as returning to the side after injury lay-off isn’t easy. I have to play a bigger role on the home turf,” he had said before the tournament. The banker from Chennai would for sure regret the missed penalty corners that cost India the semi-final match against the Olympic champions but he was instrumental in the team reaching that stage.