If India knew they would win three medals to finish the year but nothing else of note otherwise, would they have taken it? The Asia Cup gold, yes, for sure but anything better than a bronze at the Hockey World League (HWL) Final. Still, two podium finishes in as many tournaments under a new coach to end the year. Is that bad? If anything, it’s appreciable.
India had nothing to flaunt until the Asia Cup arrived and resulted in twin success. Both men and women, under their new coach, went on to win the trophy undefeated.
Sjoerd Marijne was asked to hop the fence from the women’s side and take over the men’s team after Roelant Oltmans was given marching orders. To take Marijne’s place, junior men’s world cup-winning coach Harendra Singh was appointed.
Hockey India, that faced some cricitism for appointing Marijne and ignoring Harendra for the men’s job, had the last laugh – at least for now. And the double of Asia Cup got better at the men’s HWL Final in Bhubaneswar, where the team finished third.
“I’m only the director behind the scenes,” Marijne said after India defeated Germany 2-1 in the third-place playoff. “It’s not about me. It seems the connection is good between us (players and coach). It’s both ways.”
DIDN’T BEGIN WELL
The men began the year like they ended – with a bronze. But at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in April-May, it was literally the ‘third-best’ prize after the team couldn’t beat Malaysia to reach the final.
Another setback was the losing captain and goalkeeper PR Sreejesh to a knee injury, which forced him to stay out of action for the rest of the year. It certainly wasn’t the ideal start for India, but they managed to beat New Zealand for bronze.
The HWL Semifinals in London was the first major tournament of the year. The preps looked good with a draw against Germany and win over Belgium in the three-nation invitational preceding the tournament.
But just before the team were to fly to London from Dusseldorf, SK Uthappa had to return home for a family emergency and Rupinder Pal Singh’s tournament ended before it began – with a hamstring injury.
However, those can’t be reasons for a sixth-place finish. It was due to two hurtful defeats. Once again, it was Malaysia who put India out of the podium race with a 3-2 win in the quarterfinals. Before that India had hammered Pakistan with their best ever 7-1 scoreline to lift hopes, but the Malaysians had other ideas.
The 5th-6th place match brought another disappointment as Canada too beat fancied India 3-2 to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, where India will play only by virtue of being hosts.
OFF THE LONDON PITCH
Controversy also affected India’s show in London, after Sardar Singh was called for questioning at a police station in Leeds. The former captain’s ex-girlfriend, British-Indian Ashpal Bhogal who had earlier dragged him to court in India in a case where she alleged emotional and physical torture as well as attempt to rape, had filed another complaint.
But that’s not where India’s problems ended. International Hockey Federation (FIH) President Narinder Batra alleged conspiracy by Pakistan behind the development and also posted it on Facebook. The FIH took offence and asked Batra to apologise to its member nations, including Pakistan.
Hockey India (HI) then went on to complain to the FIH, citing a sabotage theory behind the complaint against Sardar. The federation sent a letter to FIH CEO alleging that Pakistan conspired with Bhogal and even paid money to her to file the complaint.
HI then announced that India’s men and women teams will not be part of the Hockey Pro League that is scheduled to begin at the start of 2019. It seemed to be linked to the controversy in London but HI denied that.
On the women’s side of the draw in HWL Semis, the women couldn’t do anything of note in Johannesburg, where they finished a poor eighth.
Troubles for the Hockey India League (HIL) hit a crescendo and the federation, in agreement with the six franchises, decided to cancel the 2018 edition of the tournament; however, it promised that the league will return towards the end of 2019. It was an ideal situation for all the stakeholders as it gave them almost two years’ time to address the issues, which are largely financial in nature.
OLTMANS SACKED, SARDAR DROPPED
After a review of India’s flop show at the HIL Semis, Oltmans was asked to step down. HI then rolled out an advertisement inviting applications for a new men’s team coach. But even before the deadline for applications ended, HI withdrew the advertisement and asked Marijne to replace Oltmans. Harendra was handed the reins of women’s team.
It was reported that Oltmans wasn’t in favour of picking too many juniors in the senior squad, which went against him and formed the basis of HI’s decision.
Marijne’s first assignment was the Asia Cup, where he came up trumps by helping India bag gold to end a decade-long jinx. The women team also won only their second Asia Cup after 13 years. The men beat Malaysia in the final while the women got the better of China in a shootout.
But there was a big decision waiting in the wings before the team for HWL Final was announced. Marijne, High Performance Director David John and HI selectors decided to leave out Sardar for the biggest tournament of the year.
Clearly, the management and coach were in sync how they want to take the team forward. Sardar didn’t fit in the scheme of those things; however, coach Marijne based the decision on “experiment” grounds.
A MIXED HWL FINAL BUT HAPPY ENDING
Even though India won bronze in Bhubaneswar, it wasn’t a consistent show by any measure. They lost to Germany and England in the league stage, after managing an impressive 1-1 draw against Australia. The team produced its best show in the quarterfinals against Belgium where they defeated the Olympic silver medallists in a sudden death shootout after 3-3 in regulation period.
A rain-marred game in the semifinals was won 1-0 by Argentina, before India beat an ‘unwell’ Germany 2-1 to bag bronze. Seven of the 18 members of the German squad were unwell and couldn’t take field, forcing the visitors to play with the remaining 11 for the entire duration of 60 minutes. It loaded the scales in India’s favour.
However, history books will have it as bronze for India, which is what they bagged in the last edition of the tournament as well.
Overall, though, India’s report card doesn’t look rosy but mix the Asia Cup gold and HWL bronze to it, and it wears a much-improved look.