Indian hockey: Future tense?

Nishad Vellur

What we saw at Delhi’s Major Dhyan Chand Stadium on February 26, this year, was just the beginning of a long journey. A journey aimed at restoring the glory, which we lost at Santiago in Chile four years ago, and status of the national game in the country. The Indian national hockey team, which played in the FIH Olympic qualifier under chief coach Michael Nobbs, gave us reasons to rejoice and also a sigh of relief. Had India failed to qualify for the London Games it would have been the final nail in the coffin for the game has been on a sharp decline since the 1980s.

By giving India an easy draw in the qualifying tournament, International Hockey Federation (FIH) paved the way to revitalise this team, which was once a hockey powerhouse. But they also have their reasons -- FIH wants to see the revival of the sport in the country, as India is a key market for hockey – or, for that matter, any sport.

"We want India to host an international every year. We want India to be the central point for men`s hockey just as Argentina is for women`s hockey. There is a lot of potential for the sport in the country and there is pride as well due to its glorious history of the game," said FIH president Leandro Negre.

Indian hockey has been hit by a spate of controversies in the recent past, to mention one, the never ending administrative tug of war between Hockey India and Indian Hockey Federation. But they trounced over all adversities to stake a berth in the Olympics this time around. They played with vim and vigour, showed fortitude and spirit of a team, which had clinched eight gold medals in the Olympics in their golden days. The 44 goals, which the Indian players slammed into their opponents’ nets, stand testimony to the fact. Attacking hockey, which was once India’s forte, reintroduced by coach Nobbs into the setup came to fruition, to an extent. Amidst much fanfare, India rediscovered their route to the Olympics without breaking any sweat. Having said that, India will face real challenge in London 2012, where the likes of Germany, Argentina, Spain, Australia and Holland are lined up to verify India’s real strength (or weakness).

So, the bigger questions which loom large are--can India bring home the much-awaited medal? Can it, once again, have a strong footing in the country of Tendulkar and Dhoni? Is hoping for a podium finish in the Olympics being plain unrealistic? Coach Michael Nobbs clears the air, “The next four months will be more than difficult, not impossible. We are expected to win the medal but that’s unrealistic. It’s not impossible but far from reality now. How far we can get, we’ll know as we get closer to the Olympics.”

The team`s penalty conversion rate was impressive in the qualifiers, with as many as 20 goals coming through short corners. However, this strength hovers over a grey area-- they managed only 23 field goals, of which 16 came against weak opponents. They can’t afford to rely only on short corners against stronger teams in the Olympics.

“At the qualifiers we tried to create more penalty corners as some of the teams were defensive. We should have scored more field goals. We will address that in the run-up to London,” said Nobbs.

Under the watchful eye of the coach Nobbs Team India has grown in stature, both mentally and physically. His focus on fitness seems to have paid off -- we saw Indian players execute their hockey skills with much more speed and agility.

India’s weak defence line-up will also pose a huge problem for the team. Earlier, they have paid costly price for defensive blunders. However, the silver lining will be the return of Gurbaj Singh, who was absent from the team owing to injury. The presence of midfielder Sardar and winger Sunil will make things easier for India in the attacking front, but depending too much on them would be suicidal.

The reintroduction of the attacking style of hockey by Nobbs has proved revitalising. They followed the 5-3-2 formation until the rules of hockey underwent a tremendous change (also the introduction of artificial turf). This forced the former giants to stick to a defensive hockey – a style followed extensively by their European counterparts. Sadly, Indians could never master that. Giving himself a deadline of five years for a podium finish, Nobbs has chalked out a few plans for the team’s success and one can only hope that India will be back to the winning ways come Rio 2016.