At times, especially in press conferences ahead of matches or tournaments, Indian hockey coach Harendra Singh says things that teeters on the line that divides confidence and arrogance.
Here’s what he said in the press conference ahead of India’s World Cup quarter-final against the Netherlands: “Indian team is mentally and physically ready for any challenge. We know the aggressive potential of the Netherlands, and we are fully prepared to meet any challenge they throw at us. We will not accept their challenge, we will overcome them.”
One could make a case that he’s conceited with his team, looking at India’s winless record against the Netherlands in the World Cup (0-6) and the legacy of the Dutchmen – they have won three gold medals, three silver and two bronze medals in the competition.
But Harendra appears genuinely confident of his boys’ ability to beat them. For, he told the media that there are no room for excuses if India performs poorly against the Dutch.
India vs Netherlands head to head
In World Cup
| Total matches: 6|
India won: 0
Netherlands won: 6
Last five matches
| India 1-1 Netherlands (Champions Trophy, June 2018)|
India 2-1 Netherlands (Super Series, August 2017)
India 4-3 Netherlands (Super Series, August 2017)
India 1-3 Netherlands (HWL Semi-Final, June 2017)
India 1-2 Netherlands (Olympics, August 2016)
Now, apart the aforementioned past record (which Harendra underplayed, saying, “History is only to read; not comprehend”), there isn’t a big chasm between India and the Netherlands. India are ranked fifth in the world, the Netherlands fourth. Since 2013, both teams have four wins apiece against each other in nine games (one ended in a draw). Both play an attacking style of hockey – the Netherland’s averaged over 25 circle entries per game this World Cup.
When such teams clash, the contest, often, will be decided by fine margins.
Seemingly insignificant variables could matter. Like the number of days between games. The Netherlands last played on Tuesday, crushing Canada 5-1 in the cross overs (they, except their 1-4 defeat to Germany, have trounced their opponents – Malaysia (7-0), Pakistan (5-1) – in this World Cup). India, meanwhile, haven’t played since their last group game match on Saturday, wherein they beat Canada 5-1.
Would the long gap rob the momentum from the hosts?
The coach denied with confidence. “We knew the schedule six months back, so the planning was there to take care of the break,” he said. “Even the Netherlands knew that they will be playing thrice in five days, and they would have planned and prepared accordingly. In professional sport, there is no room for excuses. If you don’t plan, this five-day break will be an excellent excuse for failure, but we have planned well and we have no excuses with the break.”
Both teams have indicated they will continue their attacking style of hockey despite being in a do-or-die situation.
“We are not going to do anything different or out of the box. Obviously, there will be some changes, but largely, we will stick to our guns. It’s great that India, Netherlands, and Australia all play similar styles of hockey. It will be an even contest, and you can’t afford to concede any chances. There will be only three options: shot on goal, goal, or getting a penalty corner. Everything else is immaterial,” said Harendra.
Of the three aspects Harendra mentioned, the Netherlands’ average of goals and shots on goals are higher than India’s in this World Cup.
|SHOTS ON GOALS||30||66|
But India have a better penalty corner conversion rate than the Netherlands and, on Thursday, that could be a big difference.
The fate of the match, like the identity of the perpetrator in a whodunit novel, is likely to reveal itself only in the climax. The Indian defence – albeit world-class – has slipped up in the final quarters of a few clutch games in the past. In their group game against Belgium, India conceded a an equaliser in the fourth quarter that denied them a win.
In captain Billy Bakker and Steve van Ass, the Dutch have got two midfielders, who are among the world’s best. Birendra Lakra and company in the defence, hence, can’t afford even a moment’s lapse.
An oft-repeated area of weakness for India have been their finishing. The attackers – Mandeep Singh, Dilpreet Singh et al – are adept to infiltrate the circle, dodge defenders and get the ball close to the goal but they’ve often been jumpy whilst deciding whether to go for goal or pass a ball to the teammate near the goalmouth. This is why the coach asks his boys to “be patient” during many half-time chats.
Akashdeep Singh, in his new role as the linkman, will be crucial for India’s success on Thursday night. He hasn’t scored a campervan of goals this tournament – just one – but has been effective in the midfield. He’ll need to step up against the Dutch.
Harendra, however, reiterated that his boys are prepared. “I have trained my boys to play for 74 minutes - 60-minute game time, 10-minute half-time break and the two-minute recesses between two quarters.”
The Netherlands have reached the semi-finals on nine occasions. They have that history. India, meanwhile, are aiming to reach a World Cup semi-final after 43 years. They need to rewrite history.