Hockey World Cup 2018, K Arumugam column: Harendra Singh's India up against history in Bhubaneswar

K Arumugam

When Germany, at long last, were made hosts of the Hockey World Cup 2006, it was a remote suburb of a town bearing a tongue twister of a name which was named host. Moenchengladbach.

The host city contrasted Berlin, one of many bustling venues of the football World Cup held in the country the very year.

When a schoolgirl guided me to a bus stop near the main market, she just couldn't believe a 'World Cup' was being held there.

"World Cup?" she exclaimed with wide eyes. "In such a small town?"

Like her, many in the town would not have known the 11th edition of the field hockey's second-most popular event was being held right at their doorstep.

The organizers had many stick-ball theme based wire work across many locations to draw local attention. But my friend, who is well versed with the state of hockey on the continent, was not enthused. "Most will mistake them for some artists' work," he would comment tongue-in-cheek.

The Indian hockey team for the 2018 Hockey World Cup. Twitter @manpreetpawar07

The Indian hockey team for the 2018 Hockey World Cup. Twitter @manpreetpawar07

The event also did not start the way the Germans are identified with €" precision. You got your media badge, for instance, two days after the tournament got underway!

From a fabulous setting in Kuala Lumpur (fully covered stands with near double capacity) to Moenchengladbach raised many doubts whether the World Cup was growing and whether it would be a success here.

No one was sure. But much as it appeared that the hosts, who were unsure of many things, were sure of one thing €" beating India!

Otherwise, the opening ceremony would not have been fixed after the only match of the opening day.

Frankly speaking, after finishing 10th in the previous World Cup and seventh at the Olympics, you don't command much respect.

Like action replays, the then powers-that-be had axed captain Ignace Tirkey and coach Rajinder Singh Jr for failing to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games earlier that year.

Dilip Tirkey, like Manpreet Singh now, was reinstated as captain and Vasudevan Baskaran made one of his numerous comebacks as coach.

Another edition of Indian tamasha was enacted in the run-up except swapping of coaches €" a missing string in the series. Of course, there was no such scope for such hilarity as the men's and women's teams were separate entities in those days.

However, the hosts were in for a surprise on day one.

India matched Germany move for move, goal for goal, PC for PC and were well poised for a 2-2 draw when a fateful moment arrived with only five or seconds left on the clock.

Germany struck a quicksilver goal, amidst a maze of legs and sticks. Christopher Zeller's flick sped into the cage in painful symphony with hooter. It left Shivendra Singh, who scored a brace for India, stunned as much as every other Indian there.

Enraged Indian goalkeeper Adrian D'Souza, many in the stand claimed, slapped a defender for his lapse. The Indians, however, allowing nerves to get the better of themselves simply failed to understand that a goal is conceded after a series of lapses not just by an individual or two who happened to be in the circle.

"You should have expected it. They would come charging. If you have enough in the pocket, such late goals won't matter", said Carsten Fischer, the legendary four-time German Olympian, who drove from Cologne to witness the match.

Relieved and relaxed, the Germans took part in the opening ceremony merrily, while Dilip Tirkey's Indians melted away silently.

Despite tragic scoreboard, most believed India weren't down for the count. And that their performance, in the days to come, would mount.

Ten days later, every optimist was left to rave and rant. We did not see fired-up Indians but a tired, vexed and frustrated bunch of players.

Germany, by contrast, went on to retain their title beating Barry Dancer's Australia 4-3 in the final after trailing 1-3 at one stage.

There was the unmistakable German lesson: improve match by match and maintain a never-say-die attitude.

Unfortunately, the Indians were not of the same calibre. They lost five matches continuously before beating South Africa, their opening game rivals in Bhubaneswar, in the play-off to avoid 12th spot and the wooden spoon.

Present coach Harendra, then a deputy coach, was there to see how the sordid drama unfolded.

India's Rajpal Singh (L) challenges Argentina's Marco A. Riccardi during the Argentina vs India Field Hockey World Cup classification match 16 September 2006 in Moenchengladbach, western Germany. Argentina won 3 to 2. AFP PHOTO JOHN MACDOUGALL (Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP)

India's Rajpal Singh in action against Argentina's Marco Riccardi. India lost to Argentina and finished in 11th at the 2006 World Cup. AFP/John Macdougall

How can a team that stretched the ultimate winners, and promised so much in the opener, end up so poorly?

The opening match jinx, a solitary win in the whole of the World Cup, last-minute conceding of goals, inability to be consistent, being bogged down by the fear of defeat, labouring under the mindset to play for a draw against big teams instead of going for the kill are not isolated phenomena observed only at Moenchengladbach.

Sadly, that German city represented a monotonous routine for India across all World Cups played on synthetic turf.

The story of the first five World Cups (1971-1982) was different: the playing surface, the rules of the game, the stakes, even the top contenders. Virtually everything was different.

Three Asian teams were in the semi-finals of the 1975 World Cup! A feat never repeated in the synthetic era.

India had something to show in that decade during which they strode the podium three times, once as champions.

Yet, what stood out was the conspicuous display of regionalism, gross indiscipline from both players and the controlling body and incompetency of transient Indian coaches.

Waxing eloquence over them is now merely academic.

The story of India's World Cup excursion on the synthetic turf is not a repeat case of a slip between cup and lip as was the case from 1971 to 1982.

During that decade, India retained hopes of sealing a semi-final spot till the last stages of the pool.

Synthetic era, things went in reverse. It was the decline and decay. A sordid saga indeed.

Except for Sydney and to some extent The Hague, our World Cup teams were utter failures. The scale of defeat outwitted each other in a much the manner as at Monchengladbach. This was the emerging big picture the details of which were painful.

The first World Cup on a plastic pitch in London in 1986 bore ominous forebodings. But India simply failed to see the writing on the wall.

A major tournament of World Cup stature was held virtually hours after the Asian Games. Yet, India played the same team in both. So also Pakistan, the defending champions. Innovation was never their virtue, ignominy was the result. The giants ended up having to play for 11th position.

Pakistan bounced back in the next edition, reaching the final at home in Lahore but India were done in by the ugly anti-Indian crowd.

However, India cannot hide behind the unruly mob for its utter failure although it may have adversely affected the team.

Pargat Singh's team did not cover itself with glory when greenhorn Ajit Lakra was sent to take a penalty stroke in against France. The several veterans in the team lacked the courage to take responsibility and exploit the gilt-edged opportunity to score. Instead, they preferred to sit back while the youngster was left to cope with the pressure.

"Ajit Lakra was almost shivering," commented noted TV anchor Farooq Mazar as he trudged towards the seven-foot spot. None were surprised when he missed.

India lost to France (1-2), their fifth defeat in as many matches in Lahore. The Ajit Lakra episode is a copybook case of team spirit or the lack of it!

India did exceptionally well under Cedric D'Souza in 1994. For the first time did India defeat two of big five countries while getting the better of England (2-1) and Belgium (4-2) in a single edition. India's fifth-place revived hopes of revival which evaporated subsequently.

2002 was a classic case. Once again, D'Souza was at the helm. India had an easy looking pool with plenty of Asian company: Japan, Malaysia and Korea. But they drew with Japan in the opener while losing to other two.

D'Souza was dropped midway through the World Cup after England handed another blow. The dropping was perfectly timed as India was to play only Cuba and Poland next.

When India expectedly beat these two lowly-ranked nations, the then Indian hockey administrators boasted of their wisdom.

"What will happen to his contract," wondered Richard Charlesworth after the heavily crowded 'sacking' presser. "It was never there in the first place" was my reply.

Egos, individualism, unprofessional ways of handling issues were seen as primary players while the interests of Team India were obviously secondary.

As a result, India presents a pathetic past of the World Cups on turf.

Statistics add salt to injury: Solitary wins in 1986 and 1990 editions (both vs Canada), 2006 (vs South Africa), 2010 (vs Pakistan), 2014 (vs Malaysia).

In other World Cups, India had one or more inconsequential victories coming in the lower classification matches or in a field greater than 12 teams.

Harendra was deputy to Baskaran at Moenchengladbach. He saw it all for himself. He then turned a golden leaf at the Junior World Cup in Lucknow two years ago.

But at the Asian Games in Jakarta, the Lucknow euphoria was stifled. The semi-final trauma rankles.

Will Bhubaneswar erase those past ills is a million dollar question.

History shows Harendra is up against a well-established trend and despite the full-throated support of an impassioned crowd at the Kalinga stadium, the coach and his wards will be stretched to the hilt to prevent history from repeating itself.

Also See: Hockey World Cup Memories: Former captain Ajitpal Singh recounts leading India to title glory in 1975

Hockey World Cup 2018: Hosts India hope to overcome limitations, end 43-year itch in showpiece event

Hockey World Cup 2018: World No 12 Malaysia will be looking to impress despite being drawn in tough group

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