CHENNAI: NINTH. Silver. Gold. Fourth. Fourth. Bronze. Silver. Eighth. Gold.
Since the 2014 World Cup, where India finished a lowly ninth, the Men In Blue have returned better results in blue-riband events. More than that, what has been pleasing is how those results have been attained. Style, attacking intent and speed which would make the Jamaican relay team stand up and applaud.
The aforementioned results throw up one indisputable fact — the country is going through one of its best periods in decades. However, there is a feeling that they should have won a few more titles — both invitational as well as proper competitions — in the last three years. Both those golds came at Asian-level events (Asian Games and Asian Champions Trophy) and they just haven’t won enough. The only metric to rate successful teams.
It seems absurd to even be disappointed by the fact that the country has won ‘only’ two international events in the last three years. Bear in mind, there was a time when the FIH were pulling events out of the country (2011 Champions Trophy) because of governance issues. But given they identify themselves as a top-tier side, those numbers aren’t good enough. They have improved from World No 9 (June 2014) to No 6 (latest) but the problem is their inability to beat the absolute best at events like the World Hockey League Semifinal, starting in London on Thursday.
It’s almost as if they are like the hockey equivalent of Kei Nishikori. Good to progress deep into tournaments but lacking the gumption and self-belief to be on stage when the top prize is handed out. In 2016 alone, they played the top five teams seven times. They managed to win only once. It’s apparent that this inferior record has been on Roelant Oltmans’ mind for quite some time. “The closer you come to the top the more difficult it is to reach and stay there,” he said to Express from London. “We are working on reaching the top every day.”
It’s not PR speak. Different combinations have been tried, young players have been integrated into the system and there is a new approach to the sport. Pace and fitness, not skill, are the new king. There is also an emphasis on scoring more goals. Manpreet Singh stressed on the need to score more if India is to finish among the top three in London. Oltmans sang from the same hymn sheet on Wednesday. “To win these kinds of tournaments, we need to start scoring a higher percentage of goals from the opportunities we create.”
What the Indian team does in London isn’t going to define their year. Hockey India and Oltmans have already decided that their two main targets will be the Asia Cup and the World League Final. But it could have an impact on how the rest of the year pans out.
A win and those questions will disappear. Familiar losses will only increase the crescendo.