Hockey World Cup 2023: Finding order in disorder

Loss to the Black Sticks reflection of mediocre World Cup with unforced errors, shaky decisions and mental fragility
Image for representational purpose only.
Image for representational purpose only.

BHUBANESWAR: It's the morning after the night before. The only people at the Kalinga Stadium are the ones who are paid to be here. The stands wear a deserted look. Sixteen hours removed from the drama of Sunday night, it feels like the world's worst hangover is beginning to hit.

In hindsight, it is poetic that Indian men's hockey's best moments over the last four-five decades came when there was nobody to watch it. As soon as the fans returned, that fear of failure seemed to have gripped them thanks to the weight of 15,000 people watching their every step. It also explains why at training sessions inside Bengaluru's Sports Authority of India (SAI) campus, the players executed penalty corner variations with success. At the World Cup, all those weeks of planning melted.  

In Tokyo, PR Sreejesh climbed on top of the goal. It was an apt metaphor to suggest a high had been reached in a sport where the country has seldom managed to marry reality with expectation. In Bhubaneswar, the Indian players hit the turf, disappointment writ large on their faces. It was an apt metaphor to suggest the Tokyo high was an aberration and not the new normal. To a few people, this may seem like revisionism. The game against New Zealand did come down to the barest of margins and this piece would have been about their fighting spirit and grit if the centimetres had gone in their favour.

Yet, the game against the Black Sticks was, by and large, how their World Cup went. Unforced errors, multiple mistakes, shaky decision making and a certain sort of fear paralysis. No other thing tacitly explains why coach Graham Reid, a man who counts people management among his skills, admitted that this team may be better served with a permanent mental coach.

When he made that claim, it was hard not to wonder about what was going through Harmanpreet Singh's mind. After junior World Cup gold in 2016 and a significant member of the team that won bronze in 2021, he had become the public face of this disheartening campaign. A captain who was appointed to the post weeks before the tournament, he was expected to shoulder the responsibility of scoring the bulk of goals from penalty corners apart from being the main man at the back.

Against the Black Sticks, he became an easy target. A hurried penalty in the shoot-out and several misses from the set plays in normal time wasn't a good look but it's not like he had a bad game. Or even a bad tournament. In fact, he has the second most number of passes (173), leads for interceptions (15) and fifth best for blocks (9) among all players in Odisha. But he wasn't at his best during penalty corners. He took 13 of those but only one found its way into the goal.

Even in a world where drag-flickers are finding it tough to convert, that's a rate of 7%. Why did India decide to change the captain -- sure, in such a fast sport a skipper doesn't really have to take in-game decisions -- so late in the piece?

The defender, who looked shellshocked during the entirety of the press conference, said he didn't feel any extra pressure. "It is a team game," he said. "Everybody has been talking about my (lack of) penalty corner conversions. But I had not gone into a match without wanting to score. I feel no pressure. I have to work harder and the same for the team also."

Perhaps, there is a subtle message in that. Since that Tokyo high, the side, at least gradually, have lost the one edge they had over almost every side they came up. Fitness. It's not like the warning signs weren't there. In the final of the Commonwealth Games last year, Australia's technical profile wasn't the only factor that led to them winning 7-0. Physically, they were quicker and stronger.

They won all the 50-50 duels and comfortably outran India. It was similar against the Kiwis, who became more and more imposing as the match wore on. It wasn't a coincidence that by the time the fourth quarter came around, the visitors were making the play. "Tonight, we lacked consistency," Reid said after the match. "In the last quarter, for example, we let ourselves down. We threw the ball away, kept doing stuff like that. Things like that made it very difficult for ourselves."      

It's also increasingly clear that the teams facing India know what they are all about. Counter-attacks, individual brilliance and threat from penalty corners. Both the Welsh and the New Zealand coaches spoke about how India are all about it. When what you do becomes an open secret, it's easier to plan. Take for instance what Greg Nicol said after the press conference. "We noticed that their right hand side was hurting us," he said. "Every time they counter-attacked, they drifted to that side. We spoke about it in the second half. We managed to force them down the left a little bit." Without the injured Hardik Singh, India never really reacted to this change of tactics from the opposition.

That's why there's still a feeling that India remains a moments side; capable of otherworldly magic but a team that can seldom control the whole game. It's why both the Wales and NZ teams' game plan was simple but effective. Stay alive and take the match deep into the fourth quarter. It's like they are an open book, complete with index, appendix and annexures.

Few active internationals know the Indian side as well as Vincent Vanasch, the season Belgian custodian who's aiming to win his second World Cup. When he made his debut at Chennai in 2008, Belgium were losing to the elite sides. These days, they are the definition of elite. Having not lost to India at an FIH event since 2015 (not counting Pro League), Vanasch is ideally placed to tell why Belgium has had a lot of success.  

In the past, they were the champions," he says. "The game has changed also, with another dynamic. If you see, if we have to go one on one with an Indian player, we lose. That's for sure. But our team characteristics make up for the difference. That's how we have built the team so far. It's not about individuality because there we are gonna lose the game against India, that's for sure. If we can play together, we're gonna match up and we win that game.

Today, you can see how complete we are, tactically, technically, physically, mentally, emotionally, everything... that's where I think we can make a difference. If you see with all the big teams here, everyone is really the same. Technically, tactically, physically but then mentally... you have to make that extra... it changed for us through the years as well. I remember the first time we beat Australia, it was 2013 or something. Then, it was game on. Germany in 2008, we beat them to go to the Olympics... Game on. Same against India, after we beat them for the first time. You need that first win against a big team to grow mentally as well."

This, Vanasch says, is what made Belgium world beaters. It's the same journey India will have to undertake if they are to become world beaters.

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