Monday, July 6, 2015

Reflections from the hockey field

Now that the Hockey World League semi-finals have concluded at Antwerp, it is time for some reflections and stock-taking.

1) The initial Indian men's practice matches saw a 1-0 win against France, a 1-2 loss against Belgium, a 4-0 win against the US and a 2-1 win against England. Most teams take these matches kinda easy and reserve it primarily to fine-tune certain set-pieces without revealing too much about themselves, learning as much about the opposition, and getting a hang of the bounce in the field and other shenanigans of the umpires. Thus, while they reflect very little about the overall state-of-affairs of each team, they do provide general indications about the trajectories of different teams. Setting up four practice matches before the main event also speaks immense proportions about the HI administrative machinery, a congratulatory note deserved to them given the ramshackle nonsense one has witnessed in the bygone era. The Indian team actually arrived ten days before the event (surprise), and an Indian umpire ran the ground in many matches, surprise surprise.

2) Anyway, from these score-lines, it augurs well that we have caught up with the English a bit (to whom we lost in the ill-fated Santiago qualification match for the 2008 Olympics as well as later in the 3rd place playoff), while we have fallen beside Belgium a bit. But it must also be pointed out that much of the "spectacular" (ably assisted snidely by the Euro-centric FIH) English climb in the 2005-10 period was built on the backs of people such as Barry Middleton, Ashley Jackson and Simon Mantell. While an official Project India was going on at FIH, an unofficial Project "Heil Europe/the white man" has been in the works over the last four decades, with a lot of backroom parleying in terms of voting/rule changes/policy changes to suit the European teams primarily. Similarly, much of the Belgian climb has been on the back of people such as Tom Boon (the costliest flop in the HIL that concluded earlier in the year) and Florent van Aubel. While it can be argued that every team climbs on the back of a few star players, it is more so the case with European teams than is the case with India. Lone superstars in the Indian team annals is a bygone era, and therein lies the rub, despite humongous noise made about the case of Sardara Singh and his lonely presence in the best-11 team of many a year. To break the Indian team and its rhythm, in general, one needs to see many injuries, like in this event.

3) The performance of the Indian men's team at the event has not been abysmal, but has not been spectacular either. While one can discount for the fact that the pre-knock out matches were only useful for discarding the 5th team (4 out of 5 teams enter the quarterfinal stage), it could also be useful for steering an easier path to the finals. In that sense, a 3-2 win against France, a 2-2 draw against Pakistan and a 3-2 win against Malaysia in the quarterfinal stage did not showcase Indian capabilities in any sense. Both the 3-2 wins against France and Malaysia were wins pulled out of nowhere-land, with goals in the last-5 minute period from Ramandeep Singh and Jasjit Singh Kular, respectively. Sadly, these were the instances in the past, where India would have demitted the opportunity to the opponents, however crappy they are/were, however lowly they stood in terms of history or the more recent FIH rankings eke-ing out draws from victories and losses from draws. These are opportunities on which we capitalize these days. This says a lot about the fitness of the core bunch --- a notch or two upwards from the good old days.

4) The other side of this performance coin was the series of massive losses --- a 2-6 loss to the Australians, a 0-4 loss to the Belgians in the semi-finals and a 1-5 loss to the English in the 3rd place playoff. Not much can be said except that our rhythm has been too wrecked by one or two initial bad happenstances in the first quarter. An early goal conceded in the first quarter has led to a meltdown, especially against strong opponents who can pounce on silly mistakes in the D. A number of such goals were scored by the Belgians and the Australians. The lack of defensive depth that could couple with penalty corner strength was sorely lacking in the event (Raghunath with an injury prior to the event and Rupinderpal's continual presence in the field dogged by his injury in the practice matches). Our penalty corner conversion rate in the league matches was beyond abysmal. Jasjit Singh Kular donned the mantle of a drag flicker for the first time in the match against Malaysia and he came up with two spectacular strikes to the top of the goal box especially when it mattered the most. The last goal, coming 5 minutes before the final hooter, was more than perfect exquisitely targeted in a way that even Kumar Subramaniam (the no. 1 custodian of Malaysia who had to return due to his son's death) could have saved.

5) The rise of Jasjit, a product of Sansarpur, hopefully opens up the now defunct assembly line of Sansarpurian hockey players. Jasjit made his debut last year and it is remarkable what a bit of trust can do to a player who was/is not in his best elements in his debut series. But the empty cupboard beyond Raghu and Rupinder is how the state of affairs is in India, let alone most teams. Take away one or two linchpins and every team falls crashing down. The losses against Australia and Belgium clearly demonstrate that the young Indian team (very different from the one that won the series 3-1 in Australia) is still fresh on its knees and experience. The Indian team will go back to the drawing board to lick its wounds and fix the mess that left them without a medal in this event. But more than cleaning up the mess, the bigger questions that need attention are: who after Sreejesh?, who is filling the D-line when Raghu/Rupinder/Birendra are out?, who are the PC-exponents?, who can double or treble up their jobs at the front, the middle and the D?, etc. and more. When the margins are wafer-thin, the pipeline needs to be hot. Despite the massive improvement over the last decade, dil maange more in terms of the lower rungs of hockey. This is a sad case of work eternally in progress. It also looks like Roelant Oltmans has stepped aside leaving the job to Paul van Ass, but the substitution charts seem to indicate that we did nt exploit this capability like we did in the Walsh era. Is this a case of one step forward, two back, or is it a transition to the good old era of "a man should last the 70 minutes?"

6) Despite all the fiasco, the order of the day was that India could end up on the podium with a win over England in the 3rd place playoff. This is how every tournament is. Pakistan finished runner-up in the Champions Trophy at Bhubaneshwar recently after squeaking through the knock out stages. Many other teams just up their ante only during these stages rather than go for the kill in the league matches. All this means nothing as knock out matches essentially capture a path to the finals and eventual hockey performance depends on the side of the bed one wakes up on. There are no rewards for "consistency" in the FIH rankings, except for consistent finishing on the podium, which is rather indirectly reflected by the strength of the team. In contrast, in most other sports, every match counts in some form or another. Take that, FIH! There is no incentive for a bilateral series in the FIH rankings chart. Thus, a win here and there against Australia or Belgium or Germany does not mean much to India, but what is needed are consistent top-few finishes and wins that matter in the knock out matches.

7) It is a fact that the FIH has skewed its rankings for Asia with a massive inertia to the past rather than the recent current. For example, the Asian Games gold won by India in 2014 will not count for the top-dog in Asia mark-up (a 750 point boost over the current 700 points we have for being the 2nd top-dog based on past calculations) till 2016 has begun. This means that South Korea will continue to be ranked the no. 1 team in Asia till the end of 2015, even though the FIH rankings get updated often enough to see the impact of the Asian Games gold medal. The obvious justification for the FIH actions is that the continental events for the other four continents do not happen till 2015, but with the next Asian Games initially scheduled for Hanoi in 2019 and the Asia cup happening in 2017 and in regularity every four years, the two-year regularity between the Asian Games and the Asia Cup was to have brought back Asia to the same page as Oceania and Europe. Now with Hanoi withdrawing from running the Asian Games, and with Jakarta stepping in but with 2018 as the host date, things are again back at a flux. It is time for the Asian Hockey Federation to step in and run the Asia Cup event at a regularity of every two years. Four years is too long a time in hockey and a weighted average of the Asian Games could only help. Given the lethargy that dominates AHF, nice try at that revolution.

8) Nevertheless, despite the inertia, India's chart is only going to go up in the oncoming future. With South Korea failing to qualify for the Rio Olympics from the other Hockey World League semi-finals at Buenos Aires (So Korea finished 7th), Pakistan failing from Antwerp (finishing 8th) and Malaysia with a thin chance (finishing 6th at Antwerp), India is perhaps the only entrant at the Rio Games from Asia. That brings us to the likely qualifiers for the Rio Games: As the top-3 finishers at Buenos Aires, Germany, Argentina and Netherlands have made it. So have Australia, Belgium and England from Antwerp. India has made it as the Asian Games gold medallist. The other four continental events are to unfold in the next few months with likely winners being Argentina/Canada, South Africa, Germany/Netherlands/Belgium, and Australia/New Zealand. I am more biased towards Argentina, Australia and Germany/Netherlands as continental champions. With Brazil with a very faint hope of qualifying as the host (it has already finished beyond the 30th overall rank set by FIH for the end of 2014 and it looks likely to finish past 6th in the Pan-Am games), that leaves 7 spots to be filled from the two HWL semi-finals stage. With this set of likelihoods, three/four spots open up for Buenos Aires and Antwerp each with the 4/3 switch depending on the head-to-head FIH ranking of the 7th team from each list. Since 3 spots are assured from each event and with two spots vacated from Buenos Aires, Canada and Spain are going to make it. With 1 spot vacated from Antwerp and India already qualified, Ireland are going to make it. The 7th spot is a head-to-head between New Zealand and Malaysia, which Malaysia will lose leaving Asia with India as the lone entry. In the remote possibility that Brazil qualifies, New Zealand is out, which would be sweet comeuppance for being the darling cinderellas of FIH, a la Belgium and England.

9) The less talked about tale is the remarkable "success" story of the women. The women have all but qualified (just the official list yet to be printed) for Rio, finishing 5th beating Japan 1-0. India has now consistently beaten Japan in the recent past (including the bronze playoff at the Asian Games last year and Asia Cup in 2013) making us the 3rd best women's team in Asia behind South Korea and China. Again, this is not reflected in the FIH rankings chart. If one discounts the boycott-ridden Moscow Games in 1980, which most sensible people do, this is the first real qualification for the women's team. The entry to the World Cup in 2006 on the back of the Asia Cup win in 2004 in New Delhi and the subsequent 11th finish was ok, but not something to crow about given the massive hosting help the Asia Cup did to us. Not blaming India for hosting that event, but this qualification, on the other hand, has happened despite adversity and essentially foreign/hostile conditions.

10) The tidings towards the qualification did not look prosperous at all. With a no-name Mathias Ahrens being appointed the head Coach in May 2015, after the Australian Neil Hawgood departed from the women's team in a show of support to the ousted men's coach Terry Walsh, things looked ominous from the start. The gap from the expiry of Hawgood's contract (Dec. 31, 2014) to Ahrens' eventual appointment/first pay-date (May 4, 2015) says a lot about the lethargy that runs rife at HI, SAI and MSYA, notwithstanding their other claims to change, mobility and dynamism. Despite the women's qualification for the Rio games, Ahrens' CV and claim to coach the women's team is a bit untested. Much will depend on the team's performance in subsequent events. Is Ahrens the lucky bellweather of change initiated by Hawgood AND HI, or is Ahrens going to take a leap from Hawgood's book and jump out of the sky? Time will tell.

11) In any case, the women had earlier traveled to Hastings, NZ for the Hawke's Bay Cup and performed reasonably well, even if they lost all the matches except the 7th-8th playoff against Japan (won 3-2). That performance left one with the feeling that the climb is far and high to the top echelons of women's hockey. Given our rather wayward performance even in this event, that feeling has only been re-emphasized. The 1-0 loss to Belgium (ranked just above us in the FIH ranking list) must have hurted the most with the 5-0 and 4-2 losses to New Zealand and Australia looking like usual business. The 3-1 win against Poland (a repeat of the HWL Round 2 finals win) set us to the quarterfinal stage against Netherlands, which we lost comfortably 7-0. But the subsequent penalty shoot out win over Italy (a team ranked considerably lower than us) and Japan set us up for the 5th place finish. Our victories, like the men's, were not comfortable and does not give us a great feeling of satisfaction despite the end result.

12) As far as the Rio games are concerned, England, China and Germany make it from Valencia (the first of the two semi-finals) and Netherlands, South Korea and Australia make it from Antwerp. With South Korea already qualified as the Asian winner, New Zealand make it too. And with one of Australia/New Zealand bound to be the Oceania Cup winner, India will definitely make it. South Africa will make it as the African continental champion and Brazil wont make it as the host. With Netherlands and Argentina/US as the other likely continental champions, the list is heavily skewed for the Antwerp half of the semi-finals, with the loser of New Zealand/Australia, India, Japan likely to make it from this half. The loser of Argentina/US in the continental event is likely to make it from Valencia on account of head-to-head against Belgium. Thus, in contrast to the men's outing, all the four major Asian teams will make it to Rio.

13) That brings me to the ugly 13th point, that of Pakistan. There is a lot of hand wringing going on in Pakistani media about the non-qualification/departure from the Olympic movement. Following up with the absence at the World Cup at the Hague in 2014, there is a lot of clamor for the heads of Akhtar Rasool (the PHF president), Shahnaz Sheikh (the coach) and Muhammad Imran (the captain, who has already resigned along with the selection panel). Sadly, none of these goals will get any job accomplished. What Pakistan needs to do is to observe the climb of the Irish (who also beat them at cricket not long ago). Or closer to home, India since missing the boat at the 2008 Beijing games. What the Irish and the Indians have going for them is exposure and more exposure. Given the dearth of exposure to hyper-running teams, what did the Pakistanis do on their first foreign visit (even missing the Sultan Azlan Shah cup for want of travel moneys) to India for the Champions Trophy in ages: show a middle finger to the crowd. What did they do in South Korea, where they had gone for an exposure trip before the HWL semi-finals: walk out of the game after a yellow card. Whether the crowd was hostile or not, whether the yellow card was undeserved or not, great going that, where one loses focus on one's strategic goals and thinks with their backsides.

With Narinder Batra still hostile to any Pakistani player in HIL (and get over it, HIL is a money spinner just like IPL is and where the money grows, one goes), the ball is entirely in the Pakistani court to fix the mess amidst them. The Pakistani team is not a bad team yet, but they could well on their way to be one, given the desert that is the PHF calendar in the subsequent years. It is not India's responsibility or obligation to lift Pakistan out of its morass by hosting a rivalry now, but perhaps a business dealing, much like cricket is. What does India stand to gain by hosting a match/series/badlaa? Nothing tangible so far. And India will only host an event if it sees net benefits to itself, get over it. I am no fan of India-Pakistan matches (rioting with or without tanks and bullets), but I am an even lesser fan of a cross-border pissing contest when the Indian team has a task ahead and with diversions galore that could knock it down from its path.

That medal-winning London-bound team post could still be alive and kicking, for all one knows. Aye Gorkhali to that!

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