Heita Yoshihara picks up the ball in midfield and surveys the landscape. Most of the Indian team are in front of him. He has a couple of easy passing options to his left and right. Yoshihara, though, opts to start dribbling and run straight through the heart of the Indian defence. He sidesteps one, skins past another, dodges a third and is now inside the striking circle. Will he panic and lose his focus? Passing options are available but he gives a fourth defender the eyes, turns to his right, buys a yard of space and drills the shot into the far corner.
2-1 Japan. It was a skill that belonged in a Cirque du Soleil piece. While the Indian defence waved him along, Yoshihara’s outrageous turn of pace, skill and a nerveless finish rubber-stamped the beginning of a new Japan in field hockey. They will continue to lose more games than win — that’s logic — but Wednesday’s 3-4 loss marked the second stage in their development. Glorious failure. *** There was this football-based advertisement on TV a few years ago. A team of kids repeatedly kept losing to the bullies to nil.
“Zero-six, zero-five, zero-seven and so on,” a voiceover said. The team kept trying until one day they suffered an even bigger loss but that was the happiest day. “They managed to score a goal.” It was followed by an inspiration message at the end of it. Japan was like that in the sport. Not anymore. With the upcoming Olympics, funding isn’t a problem and players have stayed together over the last 2-3 years. One is seeing the fruits of that particular exercise. They won the World League Round 2 in Trinidad & Tobago last month over the likes of Canada, who have been regulars at the world stage for some time. Their first ever trophy at the world arena.
They have won gongs before, including a famous silver at the 1932 Summer Games in Los Angeles. But this was proof that the new system was working. Most of the teams have got experimental squads, with a mixture of youth and experience. Japan? Only one player (Manabu Yamashita) has more than 100 caps. That means there are many who are learning about competitive hockey on the job.
Japan gave GB a big fight as well on Sunday before going down 3-5. They have a very limited game and have men behind the ball at all times. But when they break, it looks like Jamaica’s relay squad at a major athletics final. They don’t just break, but try and run straight through the heart of the opposition defence and most defenders find that difficult. GB found it too hard to contain at times before Japanese naivete took over. GB coach Bobby Crutchley admitted it.
“I am not really happy with our performance,” he told Express with relation to that match. “Japan were the better side in almost all departments.” That wasn’t a patronising quote. Roelant Oltmans, who has seen this Japan side up close the last years now, too had good things to say. “It’s a team that is developing,” he said. “They go a bit up and down because last year at the Asian Champions Trophy we smashed them (10-2). They are doing very well and I think the basic skills are very good.”
Even from afar, it’s obvious they have improved. Last year at the same tournament, they played six games, losing all of them (scoring eight and conceding 20). They have already enjoyed better returns this year. They drew Malaysia on the opening night before putting up credible shows against superior teams. Baby steps towards bigger things.
After the match against Great Britain, Japan’s chief coach Takahiko Yamobori was asked a question. “Did you think you would score three goals?” Yamobori, who answers through a translator, smiled. “Win,” he said. “We are here to win.” He did not need the help of a translator.