It was never about winning the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup for India men’s hockey team. It was never about finishing in the top three. It was never about defending their bronze medal.
Coach Sjoerd Marijne landed in Malaysia with a young, inexperienced team to face the likes of Olympic champions Argentina, World Champions Australia, England, Malaysia and Ireland, who arrived with their full strength.
Since he took over in September, Marijne has focused on giving youngsters as many chances so that he has a rich bank of players to choose from. Remember that 2018 has at least four major tournaments in store for India. Hence, it did not come as a surprise as Manpreet Singh, Harmanpreet Singh, Rupinder Pal, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh were rested as Mandeep Mor, Sumit Kumar and Shilanand Lakra were called in.
Sure, the ending could have been better had this Indian team played to their potential at key points (especially against Ireland) but as we analyse the team’s fifth place finish it’s worth keeping in mind the objective of the think-tank: improve bench strength.
Did Marijne and Co achieve that?
Young guns make it count
At the end of six games, Marijne should be proud of the effort the youngsters put in. The likes of Dipsan Tirkey, Nilam Sanjeep Xess had a brilliant outing and have made a strong case for the upcoming Commonwealth and Asian Games.
Yes, their lack of experience of playing against the best teams in the world was evident. Conceding fouls and penalty corners at inopportune times was a feature of the Indian defence and midfield in this tournament/ But that did not deter them from going all out and giving everything on the pitch.
Young forward Shailanand Lakra had a brilliant tournament as he scored three goals to be the second highest goal scorer for India. Sumit Kumar also was brilliant up front as he assisted in crucial goals against Australia and other teams. He even got on the scoresheet by scoring a goal against Malaysia.
Mandeep was brilliant at defence along with Tirkey and Xess. The onus was on them to perform as Harmanpreet and Rupinder were rested.
Even though they had their defensive lapses - the lack of experience was clear against the likes of Argentina - credit to Marijne for backing the youngsters when it mattered.
Ramandeep overshadows Sardar
This was Sardar Singh’s moment of truth. After missing out on the HWL Final and the tour of New Zealand, Sardar was handed the captain’s armband and also reinstated in the midfield after playing a defensive role in the Asia Cup in October. He has been under pressure to perform since Marijne took over. However, Sardar had an average outing in Malaysia.
He played exceptional hockey in phases (as someone of his talent should) and was seen doing a defender’s job whenever required.
Truth be told, he was unable to rally his troops whenever required. When the team’s performance was dipping against Ireland in a must-win game, the youngsters would have wanted their talisman to organise the defence and choreograph the attacks. That was Sardar’s opportunity to make a statement, alas it didn’t happen.
With Sardar’s form ebbing and flowing, Ramandeep Singh stepped up for India and had a brilliant outing. He scored four goals including two against Australia. He assisted in a couple of goals and played the injectors role during penalty corners. He was India’s go to moment during crisis. In the absence of senior players, the 24-year-old grew in stature at this tournament into perhaps India’s most crucial attacking player.
Up next, Commonwealth Games
With India finishing fifth at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, Marijne will now definitely set the standard high going into the Commonwealth Games. A number of players have made a strong case of making the squad for Australia.
Suraj Karkera had a brilliant spell as goalkeeper in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. He can be an able partner for Sreejesh. In defence, provided Harmanpreet and Rupinder return, Varun, Tirkey and Rohidas and Surendra Kumar will give them depth and four penalty corner specialists. Varun scored converted twice against Ireland on Saturday and Rohidas was brilliant against Argentina in their opener, scoring twice. But the percentage of conversion remains an Achilles Heel - it has to be top of Marijne’s to-do list, to improve India’s drag-flicking and competition for that spot is one way to effect improvement.
Midfield will be an area of concern as no one had an exceptional tournament. SK Uthappa injured his hamstring and was not at his usual best. With captain Manpreet bound to be back in the midst of things, Marijne will be looking to inject pace in the midfield so that they score on the counter when required.
India’s forward seems to be under control with Ramandeep, Gurjant Singh, SV Sunil, Lalit Upadhyay, Mandeep Singh, Akashdeep Singh, Lakra and Sumit Kumar in the ranks, Marijne has a good headache up his sleeve when it comes to the CWG squad.
The India squad will be announced on March 16 in Bangalore. Time will tell who makes the cut and misses it.