JAKARTA : Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. That really should be the motto of Indian hockey. On Thursday, they once again gave an apt demonstration as to why swapping or sacking coaches will only take a side so far. Playing Malaysia for a spot in the final, they went down 7-6 in a shoot-out after scores were 2-2 at the end of regulation time.
This was vintage India, who picked an inopportune time to go off the boil after scoring a goal every 3.94 minutes in the opening five matches (17-0, 26-0, 8-0, 5-3, 20-0). With the forward line in shape and the defence not pushed, one would have expected them to be tuned in for the semifinal against Malaysia. Wrong.
Passes were routinely overcooked or under hit, opportunities from penalty corners were spurned, wingers on both flanks forgot the basic rules of the sport and the midfield and defence parted like the red sea for the first Malaysian equaliser. Forget the scoreline for a minute. This was the World No 5 at their very worst. With just three minutes to go, Harmanpreet Singh, instead of clearing the ball up the field, inexplicably brought the ball inside the ‘D’. Seconds later, Harendra Singh’s men conceded a penalty corner which the World No 12 gleefully accepted. 2-1 after 58 minutes. 2-2 a minute later. That Michael Nobbs quote of India being world beaters for 55 minutes came rushing back into the mind. In the shoot-out, SV Sunil missed to give Men in Blue a familiar heartache.
This defeat, though, shouldn’t be hung on Sunil. They were responsible as a collective, like every other defeat. Before leaving for Jakarta, PR Sreejesh, in an interview to Express, had warned his side against this very thing. “We are our main competitors.” The bad India beat the good India. “We tried to play our Indian skills and that’s where we lost momentum,” Harendra said. “They were always looking for the counter.” And yet, the frustrating thing was this. The management nor the senior members took any initiative. The coach and the players cannot even use the language argument to explain this defeat.
No expenses have been spared, multiple coaches and managers have been hired and yet the team continues to flounder on the biggest of stages. That they are yet to crack the Malaysia code after more than a year of trying tells its own story. They are a middling team who under high-performance director Terry Walsh (the coach who led India to gold in 2014) are punching above weight.
Their coach Stephan van Huizen admitted that India always gave them a chance. “When we play against India, we feel we have a chance,” he said after the match. Their template is be compact at the back, focus on short corners and hit them on the break. “We did it before in London. We feel there are areas we can exploit. Today it worked so we can talk about it.”
While Hockey India may decide to sack Harendra, the defeat becomes a much bigger problem with respect to qualifying for the Olympics. The men will now have to play qualifiers in 2019. “The road to Tokyo has become bumpy,” Harendra, who took over as coach after the CWG debacle, said. “This was the easiest route. We paid our price for silly mistakes. It’s not a setback for me or players, but a setback for hockey.”
India’s hockey fraternity trotted out a similar line after failing to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. Ten years. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.