FOR all their improvements over the last two years, the Indian national team still struggles to perform under pressure. There is a sub-conscious downing of tools and stage fright takes over. Whenever there is a high stakes game, the team goes into auto pilot with a few settings changed to reflect a ‘404 error’.
Friday’s show against Malaysia was an encore in that regard. Needing to score two unanswered goals to have any chance of reaching the final, the players lacked urgency even as the clock ticked down. The play was soporific at best, almost like Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United. Sterile possession but no cutting edge.
The game was a reminder that India miss out on the big moments needed to win tournaments. The 2014 Asian Games and the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy wins remain exceptions. There is evidence to prove the point. Across the blue chip FIH events (World League Semis and Final, Champions Trophy, World Cup and Olympics) since the beginning of 2012, they have won just two knockout games.
Fourteen games played, lost ten and drawn two (won a shootout against Netherlands and lost a shootout against Australia). That rivals South Africa in ICC tournaments. There are other examples of their hospitality in big events — the 2014 CWG Final against Australia comes to mind.
This appalling record during clutch moments is one of the reasons why India cannot be considered as one of the top teams in the world. Head coach Roelant Oltmans tried to address that problem after the Malaysia game. “If you really want to become a team that can compete with the best in the world, then you know you have to score two goals,” the Dutch said after the game. If that was a tacit admission that India do not do well under pressure, the next line confirmed it. “I am sure if Germany would have played today, they would have scored two or maybe three goals. And India doesn’t do that. That is still the difference (between us and) top sides in the world.”
That narrative has been in evidence right throughout the Azlan Shah Cup as well. They twice allowed Great Britain to equalise after being 1-0 and 2-1 up. They followed that with a loss to Australia when they really should have won the game in the opening 15 minutes.
Chances were missed, opportunities were not accepted and the world champions are too good a team to not capitalise on those freebies. That’s even more of a problem when the team — in transition — have not been able to master the art of winning ugly, a necessary trait for all top sides. You can be extremely harsh and say the Men in Blue played only two near perfect games — both against New Zealand.
They arguably had their best game against the Black Sticks in the third place playoff match on Saturday. The players were on the same wavelength, penalty corners were converted with aplomb and the transformation from defence to attack was lightning quick. Making hay when the pressure is off and nothing major is on the line. That is why watching the World No 6 is a frustrating job. They clearly have it in their arsenal but do not display it when the chips are down.
However, there were more than a few positives to take home from the year’s first tournament. “If we look at all the statistics,” Oltmans told after the win on Saturday, “then almost in every match we have had by far more circle penetrations than our opponents.
We got a lot of goalscoring opportunities, but the way we finished that off is not good enough. That is something we have to work on, towards the major tournaments later this year. If we keep our defensive structure like this and create some more opportunities, I think the future will be bright.” With three key competitions lined up in the next seven months — World League Semifinals, Asia Cup and World League Finals — one hopes that the 62-year-old is right.
Numbers don’t lie
India’s record in big-ticket FIH events at the knockout stages since the beginning of 2012.
2012 Champions Trophy | SF vs Australia 0-3
2012 Champions Trophy | 3/4 vs Pakistan 2-3
2013 World League SF | QF vs Australia 1-5
2014 World League Final | QF vs Australia 2-7
2014 Champions Trophy | SF vs Pakistan 3-4
2014 Champions Trophy | 3/4 vs Australia 1-2
2015 World League SF | QF vs Malaysia 3-2
2015 World League SF | SF vs Belgium 0-4
2015 World League SF | 3/4 vs Great Britain 1-5
2015 World League Final | QF vs Great Britain 2-1
2015 World League Final | SF vs Belgium 0-1
2015 World League Final | 3/4 vs Netherlands 5-5 (3-2 on shootout)
2016 Champions Trophy | Final vs Australia 0-0 (1-3 on shootout)
2016 Olympics | QF vs Belgium 1-3