Rio Olympics men’s hockey: Defence holds the key as India look to end 36-year medal drought

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As Rio Olympics draws closer, maybe, it’s time for the Indian hockey team to meet Maggie Nolting and understand the exact meaning of ‘putting mind to the job.’ Nolting, a 24-year-old actress from Los Angeles ran a half-marathon in Nevada on crutches spending 3 hours 32 minutes 13 seconds to traverse 13.1 miles and beat 43 people who were running on both feet.

India hockey captain PR Sreejesh leads a team that is over-flowing with skill. Tenacity is what your mind teaches you. Intensity is driven by need, ambition and a hunger that envelops your soul like a building on fire. Ensconced in the Olympic Village in Rio, the hockey team would have done the numbers – it’s been 36 years since the national team last played an Olympic semi-final; it was the Vasudevan Bhaskaran led team of 1980 that won India it’s last gold medal.

Probably, some sports psychologists wouldn’t want these numbers in front of the players. Its an unnecessary baggage they would point out. But there is a world beyond baggage – a world where you need to reclaim what you created. It’s time to add additional pages to what was once a glorious period. Periods don’t die. It’s just that you are not adding the right grade of Uranium to your hunger to win.India's goalie Raveendran sits at net during a break in the play against Australia in the men's gold medal field hockey match at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow

In a group that has Holland, Germany, Argentina, Ireland and Canada, it won’t be out of place to say that India can finish in the top three. As per the rules now, a top four finish in the group takes you into the quarter-finals and a shot at the top four. Usually, till now the International Hockey Federation along with the IOC preferred the top two in each group going to the semis.

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But seeing that Australia, Germany, Holland and to a large extent Spain constantly dominating the semis, it was required to change the format. Critics would point that teams with lesser ability can create a ‘surprise’ in a quarterfinal play-off. World Cup captain in 1994 when India finished 5th in Sydney, Jude Felix says the top teams would resent the Quarter-Final play-offs. “One bad day would finish off a top team,” he explains. “Usually, teams build up slowly and sometimes it is seen that winning all your group games is not enough. You still need to win a knock-out to enter the semis.” But Jude does agree that it is a great opportunity for India and teams below the top 4. “India needs to play a great game in the Quarters and they will suddenly see themselves in a semi-final spot,” says Jude.

Anil Aldrin, full back at the 1996 Atlanta Games, believes the format would have been effective in a 16-nation format. But also says that “the change in format will make the early stages less critical in terms of the possibility of a bad day at the office. At the same time the knock out stages can prove exciting and open up the tournament to all eight teams.”

Irrespective of the argument about big and small teams in the Olympic format, India open their campaign on August 6th against what you could label effectively as the ‘minnows’ – Ireland. It’s a tough opener. Ireland beat Malaysia and Pakistan at the World League semis and with Australia’s Oceania Cup win, Ireland’s Rio trip was on.

If India is stressed by the fact that it’s been 36 years since they entered the last four of the tournament, imagine what Ireland must be going through. The Irish played their last Olympics, 108 years back in 1908 in London, losing the final to Great Britain. It’s an impressive piece of stat; played one Olympic, won silver.

For the Indians, it’s a tough game. The first match, in the last two decades, has been a worrying factor. In fact, from 1928 till 1964 Tokyo, India never lost an opening match in the Olympics. New Zealand first defeated them in the 1968 Mexico Games 2-1. Holland drew with India 1-1 in the 1972 Munich Olympics. And then in 1988 Seoul, Russia beat them 1-0 in the opening match.

In Barcelona, Germany outplayed India 3-0 and then in Atlanta, Argentina beat India 1-0. India did turn the tables on Argentina in 2000 Sydney beating them 3-0 in the opening match but promptly lost the opening games in the next two games – 3-1 to Holland in Athens and 2-3 again to the Dutch in London. India didn’t qualify for the Games in Beijing; probably, Indian hockey’s biggest black mark.

“It’s the momentum that you look for in the opening match,” says Col Balbir Singh of the 1968 Mexico team that won a bronze and also lost it’s opening match for the first time in history. “The Irish are a strong side and have been performing in the European Championships. They are sturdy, fast on the ball and don’t give it away. You have to earn it from them.”

Ireland’s two key players are Mitch Darling, a forward who plays with Rotterdam and their biggest asset, their captain and goalkeeper David Harte who won the world goalkeeper of the year award for 2015. Standing at 6’5’’, he looks like an albatross flapping at the goalpost with the flexibility of a gymnast. In an interview after reaching Rio, Harte said, “1908 was the last time any hockey team from Ireland was in the Olympic Games, and for us now to have the opportunity to go and represent ourselves in the Rio Olympics in 2016 is something that we all cannot wait to do so.”

Indian captain at the 2004 Olympics, Dilip Tirkey, feels that despite the physicality of the Irish side, India can easily put them away. “Let’s only look at the skills,” he explains. “It’s about keeping the ball and not giving it away for counter-attacks and keeping up the pressure. We have the team. And the boys are eager. I think we will get past Ireland and have a momentum.”

Against Canada, India have played thrice in the Olympics and won all the games scoring 11 goals. It will be the matches against Argentina, Holland and Germany that will prove crucial in deciding who finishes where in the group.

Against Argentina, India have played eight matches, won five, lost one and drawn two. But even though the Head to Head records against Holland and Germany are good for India, it’s the last two decades where they have lost out to them. Against Holland in the Olympics, India have clashed eleven times, won seven, lost thrice and drawn once. But in 2004 and 2012, Holland have beaten India easily. The team would of course draw inspiration from the win in the World League where India beat Holland for the bronze medal.

Against the reigning Olympic Champions Germany, India would do well to look at the videos of the Champions Trophy where defensive errors forced a draw after India led 3-1 in the third quarter. But the Indian coach is too experienced to not know that Germany at the Olympic Games is a different team. Suddenly, they have the energy, skill and verve to get past the best and stamp their superiority. The Dutch didn’t even play the Champions Trophy, secure in the knowledge that training for Rio was priority. Confidence is not something the top European sides ever lack.

India has a smart set of players capable of raising their levels. Every player knows they aren’t playing an annual tournament but participating in something they have dreamt of since they picked up a stick. “It’s the feeling of an Olympics that should drive them,” says Col Balbir. “Coaching aside, they need to die on the pitch. There are no second chances. Who knows where you are in four years time. This is the opportunity. Grab it.”

Balbir like many other Olympic legends believe the defence holds the key. India has one of the best goalkeepers in Sreejesh and a defensive unit of Harmanpreet Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh, Kothajit Singh and Surender Kumar. “I think if these guys don’t lose focus, the opposition will get rattled and India gets the opportunity of counter-attacks,” says Col Balbir. “Understand the fact that to create an attack and find the gaps, we need to bring them into our half. Our defensive capabilities need to be high.”

Not long back, at 2004 Athens, Sandeep Singh was thrown at the deep end. It was evident that he wasn’t ready for the Olympics. And, sadly for the player, Holland, broke through his position five to six times in the match and scored twice. It was Sandeep’s baptism by fire. But India lost.

Harmanpreet Singh has come the same way; fast tracked through the junior ranks and suddenly will find himself playing the Olympic Games. Anil Aldrin doesn’t agree. “Birender Lakra will definitely be missed but in his absence Harman has been a godsend and if the seasoned full backs play well Harman can be a lethal right half also.” Balbir also agrees with Aldrin. “Don’t compare him with Sandeep,” says Col Balbir, his voice a little on the edge. “Harmanpreet has come on his own merit. You require his type of player – calm, cool, covering angles, going up, attacking – plus he is also a drag flicker. I have been watching him and he is extremely quick on his feet.”

Rio OlympicsIt’s the midfield where changes have happened. Sardar as per team coach Roelant Oltmans might not play centre midfield but could be up there with the forwards. Understandably, the argument is lack of time for a player to convince himself of playing centre-forward after a decade as a centre-half. Jude Felix, one of India’s best centre-halfs, finishes the argument saying, “Sardar doesn’t have a choice. He has to follow what Oltmans says. But the coach must be having a strategy.”

Jude has been with the team at the World Hockey League in Antwerp and explains the move further. “Manpreet Singh is a conventional centre-half,” says Jude. “It means he can distribute the ball and also fall back for defensive duties. Sardar is an attacking centre-half and that is where Oltmans has changed the pattern. Without the ball, Sardar may be lost and slow.”

But would that ensure that Sardar can play in a forward position? Jude feels Sardar has the skills to take on any defence in the world. But on the other hand, Balbir feels that looking at the way the game is going, Oltmans can still change the pattern and make Manpreet ultra-defensive and bring Sardar into a more central role.

Goal scoring is an art and India has lacked in that area for quite some time now. Skills have never been the issue. Not with this team too. But hopes are on SV Sunil, Akashdeep Singh, Ramandeep Singh and Nikkin Thimmaiah, the pure forwards in the bunch. Sunil’s speed in the middle and on the right flank, his area of strength, has been a delight to watch. Sometimes he does overdo the sprint not able to hold the ball at the pace that he is running. But he massively upsets defences with his runs as falling back and getting together is against the run of play then.

Akashdeep should find the Olympics a happy hunting ground – his skills are magical. He is absolutely a show-stopper outside the circle, his dribbling cutting through the defence, giving other forwards a chance to sneak into scoring positions. And with Sardar thrown into the works, it would be incredible to watch Akashdeep in tandem with Sardar.
Sunil, one of those few players from the 2012 London side is eager to wipe out the terrible memories. India had finished 12th and for the first time ever in any Olympics failed to win a match. “I was a member of the 2012 team and I know exactly what happened. It is still fresh in my memory. We will try to turn into a good memory this time.”

Hero Hockey League World Final - Day 4Before the team left, captaincy was handed over to Sreejesh. In hockey, it’s the coach who sets the tactics and strategy. It’s an arm band that the captain sports. But can you kill ambition, pride, in a matter of days? It’s a fallacy if someone believes captaincy has no meaning in sport. “It has a lot of meaning,” says Col Balbir. “I was part of a side that had two captains and we all know what happened in 1968. But I do hope that Sardar, even he if he is disappointed, ensures he plays the best.”

Sardar said before leaving for Rio, “Nothing like that. I would say for me, hockey comes first then the team, nation. Everyone is a captain in the team. Our target is to perform to our best in the Olympics because since the last 2 years we were waiting for this event. And this is the time to strengthen the unity. We will try to walk together like a team.”

Jude feels it takes a bit of time to get over it. “I do agree that five percent it kind of bothers you and I do understand what Sardar must be feeling. But he is a bigger player and understands the meaning of Olympics. All issues can be put on the side. This is a once in a four-year opportunity and if I know Sardar, he will play his best.”

Aldrin, however, believes it is not such a big deal. “The captaincy issue is being blown out of proportion,” he says. “With teams having multiple captains there is less heartburn at the loss of captaincy. The team is more important than any individual. I’m sure all the players understand this.”

It’s time you want the world as your audience. To be able to play in dizzying patterns. And to show what the world actually comes to see – sublime skills. Well-known writer George Plimpton, talking about the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire recounted: Someone reached for Muhammad Ali’s hand and said, “Good Luck.”

“Luck?” he repeated in derision. “No man, skill!”

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