Hockey World League Final: The good, the bad and the googly

India’s unpredictable nature to shift from one extreme to another has baffled many ahead of crucial semifinal battle against Argentina.

Published: 08th December 2017 02:58 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th December 2017 08:03 AM   |  A+A-

Action from the match between Argentina and England at Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar on Thursday (EPS | Shamim Qureshy)

Express News Service

BHUBANESWAR: When sports writer Osman Samiuddin tried to capture the innate beauty and thrill of how Pakistan play cricket, he settled on the word ‘haal’. In his article for a British daily, he explained what it meant. “The word haal means,” he wrote, “literally state, as in state of being and can imply one of a number of different states.”

In a modern context, Samiuddin stated that it increasingly began to reflect a deeper meaning. “As one ultimate state of ecstasy, much sought after but rarely achieved, in man’s journey to get closer to God.” You can see why he picked the word to describe the madcap nature of Pakistan cricket. Indian hockey is a bit like that. One may loosely translate haal as ‘being in the zone’ — that English phrase athletes always use to describe how mortals like themselves achieve momentary immortality to complete a superhuman feat.

The problem with Indian hockey though is they are seemingly capable of wild mood swings which range from sublime to the ridiculous in a 60-minute match. They suffer from this mental condition to such an extent, being in the zone might mean the opposite. It might mean anything from a state of ultimate zen where everything they touch turns into platinum to a state of utter chaos where they question their own identity. At the ongoing World League Final, these sort of mood swings — bipolar in the extreme — have very much been the norm.

In the first match against Australia, they inhabited the good zone. In the next two matches, they teleported between the two different zones like characters out of Harry Potter. Against Belgium on Wednesday, they took being in the good zone to another level. The problem with such inconsistency on an hour-by-hour basis is not knowing which India will turn up on any given day. When Belgium’s Arthur van Doren was asked about the prospect of facing India last week, he revealed something fascinating. “India is really, really good on a good day,” he had said.

“They are dangerous on any day. It’s a team you really have to watch out for. I don’t think they are a bad side. They are a very dangerous side. The most dangerous sides always look like they are playing bad and that’s when they pounce. It’s one of their strong suits.” Van Doren, who missed the decisive penalty in sudden death in the second quarterfinal against India, could not have been more right. In the four matches the hosts have played so far, they have led for a grand total of 24 minutes (one against Australia and 23 against Belgium) out of the 240 they have played. Yet, they are 60 minutes away from a final.

Nobody knows which India will turn up against Argentina in the semifinal on Friday, not even coach Sjoerd Marijne who is in the vicinity of the players most of the time. Koobaburra mainstay Simon Orchard posted on Twitter saying the Indian team were progressively getting worse day by day. Yet, 48 hours later, he was congratulating a few of his friends in the Indian team. By all accounts, Manpreet Singh’s men had a disappointing campaign at the Rio Olympics. But even there, they had time to inhabit both the zones. They drew Canada but also beat Argentina, who eventually went on to win the gold medal. If the outcome is the same, then India will have achieved something historic, their first-ever FIH final in India. With this team though, anything is possible.

Spain cry over schedule

The Spaniards have enjoyed a rejuvenation of late in hockey. After disappearing from the global stage for some time, they have made the cut for the last few FIH events. In the pool stage at the World League Final, they emphasised that development with an impressive win over Olympic gold-medallists Argentina.

However, they lost to Australia in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, much to the disappointment of their coach Frederic Soyez. But for a completely different reason. “It’s not fair,” he said at the mixed zone after the defeat. “We played four matches in five days, Australia had six. We played back-to-back games and Australia had a day’s rest.” While he had a point, that’s just the rub of the draw and not a conspiracy.

South Korea blame fall on computers and smartphones

In the early part of the 21st century, South Korea were the undisputed powerhouse in Asia. In recent times, however, they have fallen off the radar. According to coach Shin Seok-Kyo, that is because of video games. Well, kind of. “Earlier, when I was a player, we used to have good skill but we also did not shy away from putting the hard yards in training. That has completely gone now. If we make the players train hard, they leave the camp and go home. They are happy with their computers and smartphones.”

Maybe it’s better to finish last in the pool stages

The bizarre nature of the World League Final doesn’t reward consistency. Teams who begin slowly still have a chance. It looks like Argentina have finally caught on to it. They topped the group stages in New Delhi (Jan 2014) and Raipur (Dec 2015) but failed in the first hurdle. They got wiser at this edition and finished third. The end result? Los Leonas beat England to enter the semis. India are past-masters at exploiting the format. In Raipur, they finished last but still won a bronze. In Bhubaneswar, they finished last but still qualified for the semifinal.

swaroop@newindianexpress.com

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