“Silver was not the colour we deserved.” This part of PR Sreejesh’s tweet summed up Team India’s mood at the conclusion of Champions Trophy in Breda, Netherlands. Their smiles had cursory curves. The substance in it was only for supporters in the stands, who they thanked with an applause. But the dejection in every step of their walk was palpable. Twice they came close to winning Champions Trophy gold and twice they had to settle for silver.
Across 40 years and 16 attempts, the eight-time Olympic gold medallists failed to win the Champions Trophy even once. That’s the disappointing fact, not so much that they lost to Australia in two finals – in shootouts on both occasions, as the tournament gets buried into history books with the conclusion of its last edition.
At 1-1 after 60 minutes that included heart-stopping goal-mouth moments in the final, Indian players were ill-prepared for the penalty shootout. Like in 2016, Sreejesh lost the goalkeeping contest to Tyler Lovell, who foiled three of four Indian attempts in the one-on-one shootout. Australia won the shootout 3-1, their 15th Champions Trophy title came along and India, once again, stood a step lower on the podium.
“If you don’t fight for what you want… Don’t cry for what you lost.” This was the other part of Sreejesh’s post-match tweet. The skipper’s anguish was understandable. For, he was the captain in 2016 as well.
When one performs like India did on Sunday, a loss at the end of it is hard to stomach. That’s where the team’s melancholy is justified. But in Harendra Singh’s first major assignment as coach, India played at a level that shows a lot of promise for the Asian Games and World Cup ahead.
They started the tournament in Breda by beating Pakistan 4-0, became confident with a 2-1 win over Olympic champions Argentina 2-1, lost narrowly to Australia 2-3, threwBelgium out of the gold-medal race with a 1-1 scoreline and, with another 1-1 draw over hosts Netherlands, qualified for the final.
That run embodied the team’s resilience after the disappointing Commonwealth Games.
But with Asian Games – beginning August 18 – just over a month away, India’s inability to win gold will be critically eyed. For, if the same happens at the Asiad, India will miss direct qualification to Olympics and have to endure the rigors of Hockey Series to secure a ticket to Tokyo 2020.
That’s perhaps the worry reflecting in Sreejesh’s tweet, and it will find its way into the Hockey India office that has to select the Asian Games squad very soon.
The PC Riddle
When India won their only gold medal match against Australia in the 2003 Sydney Challenge Cup, Jugraj Singh scored off a penalty corner (PC) in India’s famous 5-3 victory. Jugraj was one of the best PC specialists in the world. Despite having him and former Australia dragflicker Chris Ciriello in the coaching staff, India’s PC conversion in Breda was poor.
India earned 26 PCs but could convert only three. Of those, 11 were against Australia in two matches – but not even one was converted.
In contrast, the Indian defence stood up when facing PCs. Out of the 34 India conceded, Sreejesh & Co managed to block 30. India’s defence, in fact, was the highlight of their performance in Breda.
However, just 11.5 percent PC scoring rate should tighten the scrutiny on not only Indian dragflickers but also Jugraj and Ciriello.
With Rupinder Pal Singh recovering back home, India’s options in Breda were limited to using Harmanpreet Singh and trying out variations. But both options failed. India were reluctant to use Amit Rohidas and Varun Kumar as drag-flick options. The obvious question that arises is ‘are they not match-ready?’ And as Harmanpreet’s inconsistency will also be looked upon.
Jugraj has now been with the national set-up for close to two years and needs to do more than just fill in the assistant coach’s chair. Ciriello’s responsibilities as analytical coach may go beyond sorting out PC woes but it remains the chief reason why his expensive services were sought soon after he retired last year.
Jury out on Sardar’s place
Among the returning seniors, Sardar Singh was given a swim-or-sink chance by the selectors and Harendra. The jury is still out on him, especially after his miss in the penalty shootout against Australia. His lack of pace, which is a concern for High Performance Director David John, became evident in the shootout and the Australian goalkeeper, Lovell, easily thwarted him.
There aren’t many backups for Manpreet Singh in the play-maker’s role. While Harjeet Singh has almost ruined his career focusing on his biopic, Vivek Sagar Prasad has come in and impressed but still needs plenty of international experience before he can reliably substitute Manpreet against big teams and control the midfield.
That’s where Sardar fitted perfectly in Breda. He no longer has the speed of Manpreet, but his ball-holding skills still rank high. The midfield possession doesn’t drop with Manpreet and Sardar replacing each other as rolling substitutes.
India have two of the biggest tournaments coming up. An Olympic berth is up for grabs at the Asian Games and a World Cup podium later at home could herald a new era. Those big stages require a player like Sardar but his performance at crunch moments, like in the CT shootout, will have to match up to it. Rest is up to the selectors.