Bhubaneshwar: Former India captain Dilip Tirkey feels retired stalwart Sardar Singh should have been part of country's World Cup squad, and the presence of the experienced 32-year-old would have lent better balance to the team going into the 16-team event that starts here on 28 November.
Sardar announced his retirement from international hockey after a disastrous outing in the Asian Games semi-final against Malaysia, where his indifferent form and a yellow card late in the match cost India a spot in the final.
While India did beat Pakistan to win a bronze medal, inexplicable lapses against the lower-ranked Malaysia cost Harendra Singh's boys a direct qualification in the Tokyo Olympics.
Tirkey, though, threw his weight behind Sardar. "The game against Malaysia was an aberration. Everybody erred in that game; it was a collective failure," Tirkey, who represented India in three World Cups from 1998 to 2006, told Firstpost at the ongoing Ekamra Sports Literary Festival here.
"I don't think I have seen India play like that in last 2-3 years. It was easily the worst match of the year for us. But to punish a player for one bad game is a bit harsh. This can happen in any sport. Look at cricket; if your main batsman gets out for a duck, will you drop him? It doesn't happen that way. There should be a healthy balance between seniors and juniors in the squad."
Sardar, who broke into the national team in 2006 and made his mark as a lightening fast centre-forward, was pushed to the midfield in the later years of his career where his vision and positional play made him a lynchpin of much of India's attacking and defensive moves. However, with advancing years, there were question marks over his speed and agility.
Tirkey, however, feels that the team could have used the former captain in short bursts to get the best out of him.
"Modern hockey doesn't demand a player to remain on pitch for 30 minutes at a stretch. An experienced player can be asked to play for five-ten minutes, or a quarter. I think in events such as World Cups, experience matters a lot.
"He (Sardar) is an experienced player, and the absence of a player of his experience will obviously be felt. If you look at the history of Indian hockey, it has enough instances where a senior player has had to exit before a big event for a variety of reasons. I don't know what has transpired between him and Hockey India, but if a senior player is fit and is ready to play, I think he should be given a chance," he opined.
A veteran of 412 international matches, Tirkey said penalty corner conversion and conceding late goals were areas of improvement for the home team going into the World Cup.
"Big matches are invariably decided on short-corners, and our conversion rate has been pretty ordinary despite the presence of world-class drag-flickers like Harmanpreet Singh and Rupinderpal Singh. If India were to go deep in the competition, they have to score more on penalty corners.
"Likewise, we have historically been guilty of conceding late goals. These two problem areas seem to have unfortunately become a part of our character," the former defender said.
Further, he identified a lack of mental strength as the primary reason behind last-minute lapses and urged the team to not slack off in the dying stages of the match.
"Teams across the world have realised this weakness, so they press really hard in end moments of the game. Our defence has to be mentally strong to soak in all that pressure and not concede a late field goal or a penalty corner. I think it's down to lack of mental strength, and though coaches over the years have done a lot to buck the trend, a lot still needs to be done," Tirkey said.
The three-time Olympian added that the hosts have a realistic chance of making it to the last four, following which, "anything can happen."
"I think we should reach the semi-finals. Once we are at that stage and with the crowd behind us, anything can happen. But the first target should be to get mentally strong and avoid repeating mistakes."
India will open their campaign with a Pool C match against South Africa on 28 November.