Jakarta: The bronze medals dangled around their necks, but the smiles were missing.
They had turned out to be the winners on the night defeating Pakistan 2-1 in the bronze medal playoff, but in their hearts, the Indian men’s hockey team members knew this is not what they deserved.
The World No. 5 team and tournament favourites India were handed some tough lessons at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium here this week.
India began the tournament on a strong note, steamrolling the weaker opponents. But on the day it really mattered, they fell flat. Such was the magnitude of the loss to Malaysia in the semi-finals, that coach Harendra Singh had to “force” his boys to come out of their rooms and go out for a team bonding lunch on Friday afternoon.
India had missed a direct chance to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games after an energy-sapping loss to Malaysia that was hard to digest, but there was work to be done. They were facing Pakistan in the bronze medal playoff and even though it was just a consolation prize, the team knew they could not afford another loss.
‘This performance is a not a reflection of our potential’
Harendra revealed how the players were sulking and brooding after the loss to Malaysia and it was an effort to get them going.
“The boys were really down and out. We had to force them to go out yesterday. We had a recovery session in the morning and then planned a team lunch outing where they would bond and get the focus back. It was important to get away from this environment for sometime and return sharper,” the coach said.
“I gave them many examples of how people and teams who focus on the past never achieve anything. They were told to re-focus and fight for the bronze.”
“It is very tough to come back from these situations and I am happy that they bounced back from a heartbreaking loss.”
“True, this performance is a not a reflection of our potential but I am happy with how they played today.”
India have the Asian Champions Trophy in Oman coming up next, and then, the World Cup at home.
‘We messed up when it really mattered’
Experienced striker SV Sunil said the team only have themselves to blame for missing out on an Olympic slot.
“The bronze is fine but we should not forget that we have lost the gold here. We are happy that we are taking back home a medal but this will not take away the heartbreak suffered against Malaysia in the semi-finals,” Sunil said.
Asked what was the team doing wrong when it came to thr big matches, Sunil said the players will have to take collective responsibility for the show in Jakarta.
“We are much more capable than this as a team and it was clearly a failure on our part to execute the plans. I think we took things a little easy perhaps (against Malaysia).”
“The way we played against Pakistan today is how we should be playing all the matches. There was structure, the boys played with calm heads and followed the plan to the T.”
“But then we messed up when it really mattered and are now suffering because of that.”
The senior striker said that the team will have to “correct a lot” ahead of the World Cup.
“This was just the Asian Games and if we play like this, it will be very tough at the World Cup. As a team, we will get back to the camp in a few days and analyze very minutely what went wrong. These Games have given us a lot of lessons and it is up to us now to learn from them.
“Our aim is consistent play and following an upward path and if we are to do well at the World Cup, we will have to do much better.”
‘I am only here for medals’
Hockey India was livid after India’s loss to Malaysia, sending out a warning to Harendra that the World Cup at home in November-December would be the “last chance to perform or perish” for the coach.
A statement like this in the middle of the tournament with India yet to play the bronze medal match evoked criticism from some quarters but Harendra said “he was up for the challenge”.
“If a statement like this has come, I am ready for it and take it positively. When I was hired a few months ago, we spoke about medals and this is what I am here for.”
“The World Cup will be a great challenge and me and my players will give our all. I am a person who takes all comments positively and I look at this as an opportunity to improve.”
“This shows everyone expects a lot from us and we will have to deliver.”
An unnamed Hockey India official also spoke about the discipline issues within the team, saying the players spent a lot of time on the social media which was affecting their performance.
Harendra said he himself follows a no-social media policy during tournaments and hasn’t noticed any such thing within the team. “I shall go back and look into this. If it is anything serious and can affect a team’s performance, we shall look into it.”
“I will do anything that can get us medals and aid in a better performance.”
‘Important to look ahead’
Skipper PR Sreejesh was happy with the team’s display on the day but said it needed to improve.
“We are not going home empty-handed and that is a good thing. It is important to win even though we would have liked to play the final and return home with a gold and an Olympic slot.”
“It is important to learn from all this but it is also very significant to look ahead and not brood over things,” Sreejesh said.
Former skipper Sardar Singh opined that better communication was needed from the players.
“There are a lot of small things that combine to make a winning unit. We made some silly errors, there was some miscommunication, too, during the match against Malaysia.
“Perhaps, the free man could have been given more freedom and space to play. All this counts and together we need to work on these,” he said.
The men’s team will now have a 10-day break following which they will gather in Bengaluru on September 16 for a camp.
High performance director David John said India will field a full strength squad for the Asian Champions Trophy in October, which will have teams like Japan, Pakistan, Oman, Malaysia and South Korea.
Defender Birendra Lakra, who injured his knee in the match against Korea, will miss the tournament.