Commonwealth Games. Asian Games. Champions Trophy. Two World Cups – women’s followed by the men’s at home. There was so much to look forward to for Indian hockey fans in 2018. But as the year comes to a close, the Indian teams’ haul – comprising a silver medal and a bronze medal from Asian Games, a silver medal at the Champions Trophy and a shared gold medal (with Pakistan) and a silver medal in the Asian Champions Trophy – appears unimpressive. This, however, isn’t the full picture.
Because of the sheer volume of tournaments the men’s team played, including the much-hyped World Cup in the hockey-crazed city of Bhubaneswar, it was in the spotlight more than the women’s. There is, hence, more to speak of the performances of the men’s team than the women’s.
Rani Rampal and her team, despite not winning a major tournament, scripted little pieces of history. They helped the Indian team secure its best position in the women’s World Cup in four decades. They missed, after losing the quarter-final in a penalty shootout to eventual runners-up Ireland, becoming the second Indian women’s team to reach the last-four stage of the tournament.
In the Asian Games, they became the first Indian women’s team to reach the final in two decades. They had a chance to win the gold medal after 36 years but they fell one step short of it – losing 1-2 to the lower-ranked Japanese in a gripping finale.
Rani and company, despite the heartbreaking loss, were included in the Indian government’s Target Olympic Podium scheme for their performances. There aren’t many tournaments for them in 2019 as compared to this year but the preparation will begin for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Roller coaster year for men’s team
From the world rankings, it could be inferred that the men’s team have remained the same from last year – they finished 2017 at sixth; now, they are fifth. But it wasn’t a case of almost maintaining status quo. The rankings don’t reveal the roller-coaster ride that the team had in 2018.
In the year’s first major assignment, the then men’s team’s coach Sjoerd Marijne, as a part of his experiment to find the best combination, took a largely young, internationally untested Indian squad for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. India lose five games and finished fifth in the tournament.
Failure to deliver at the Commonwealth Games – where India finished fourth despite enjoying an unbeaten run in the group stage – triggered Hockey India to swap positions of Marijne and the women’s team coach Harendra Singh.
The men’s team under Harendra, an Indian coach, was expected to make a turnaround. And, their performance in the Champions Trophy in Breda – arguably its best this year – lived up to the promise. Harendra’s boys, in the final, lost against Australia a nerve-wracking shootout 1-3 to clinch a second silver medal in the tournament.
Asian Games debacle and World Cup heartbreak
The performances in the Commonwealth Games and the following three-match Test series, wherein New Zealand were blanked 3-0, made India the overwhelming favourites to win the gold medal for the second straight time at the Asian Games.
India lived up to the tag in the group stage of the tournament, bulldozing the teams they came against. In five games, they scored a whopping 76 goals – 26 of them coming in a match against Hong Kong. As the top-ranked side, they were expected to cruise to gold medal. But on their most crucial match of the tournament until then, India went down to a resilient Malaysia in sudden death. The defeat disabled a direct entry to the Olympics and they, now, have to take a long, winding road to reach Tokyo.
This was also the last tournament of Indian hockey great Sardar Singh as he announced his retirement in September.
Ahead of the World Cup, the Indian junior team clinched a historic silver medal in the Hockey 5s at the Buenos Aires Youth Olympics.
The bronze medal India took home after a win against Pakistan in Asian Games didn’t offer enough consolation for the senior team. But the World Cup at home forced Harendra’s boys to regroup and get ready. The lead-up to the tournament was smooth as they finished atop, with Pakistan, the Asian Champions Trophy, unbeaten.
India fielded a very young, and hence, inexperienced, team (whose average age was under 24) for the World Cup. Coach Harendra played down the lack of experience, reasoning that seven players from the squad have played and won the Junior World Cup. He believed in his team and guided them to the last-eight stage, undefeated (even against eventual champions Belgium). But to the Netherlands – a more experienced side – they lost 1-2 and finished fifth.
The lack of a major title might tempt one to dismiss 2018 as a year of missed opportunities for the men’s team. But this young team, if it isn’t chopped and changed haphazardly, can, slowly but steadily, take Indian hockey to the summit.