Sultan Azlan Shah Cup 2019: Indian hockey team aim to put 2018's disappointments behind them in build-up to Olympic qualifiers

Sundeep Misra
Teams in Ipoh will be aware of the fact that the Indian team has a relatively inexperienced side and morale gets a boost if you beat the 5th ranked team in the world.

Analysis and introspection go hand in hand, in almost every sphere in life. More so in sports, where winning and losing acquires a life of its own. Losing consigns you to a pile of teams with a trunk load of statistics on why and how you lost. Winning is singular; the only stat a trophy and a word that separates you from the rest €" champion.

It's that word, Champion, that the Indian hockey team aspired for in 2018 and came up short. Winning goes back to 2017 at the Maulana Bhasani Stadium when India won the Asia Cup. One can point to the 2018 Asian Champions Trophy but the final was washed away with India sharing the trophy with Pakistan. The year 2018 also saw expectations fall short; the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games and the big story that ended in a whimper €" India's 6th place at the World Cup. Despite all that, the stories, controversies, coach changes, selection squabbles, India stands once again at the door of a new year, 2019 with renewed ambition, a younger set of players and the hope of a 'world class coach' coming in who would guide their destiny to winning ways.

Despite senior and experienced players sitting out with a slew of injuries, the national team doesn't look particularly weakened. Almost 90 percent of the squad has played international hockey and understands the pressures. It still will be a surprise if they don't make it to the 28th Sultan Azlan Shah final. Take away the winning and losing aspects, the squad needs to step gingerly in what is a run-up to the Olympic Qualifiers in June in Bhubaneswar, which, if they make it to the final, leads them to a home and away game against an opponent ranked higher than themselves. Winning does give momentum but the important part of the coaching management, in this case, Chris Ciriello, is to bring back the 'team' aspect after a gruelling but unrewarding 2018.

In terms of pure defence, India is quite solid at the back with Sreejesh and Krishan Pathak as goalkeepers. Amit Rohidas, Birendra Lakra, Varun Kumar, Surender Kumar, Kothajit bring in valuable experience and fluency at the back. If there is a weak link, in terms of experience, then it's Gurinder Singh but he too was part of the 2016 Junior World Cup team, 2017 Azlan Shah and the 2018 Asian Champions Trophy.

In the midfield, it's Manpreet Singh leading the charge as captain along with Nilakanta, Hardik and Sumit. The welcome change is the coming back of Vivek Sagar Prasad, probably the player who should have played the World Cup in place of Nilakanta or Hardik. It was also a decision that would have helped in the quarter-final against Holland where solidity and fluency in the midfield was lost repeatedly. For a player who has all the attributes and played through all the important tournaments, dropping him for the World Cup remains a mystery, one that wasn't taken looking at Vivek's pace and skill on the pitch. His comeback is a relief and he would have understood one cardinal rule in Indian hockey €" never take anything for granted; not even talent.

The forward line looks slightly anorexic. Yet you have the experienced Mandeep Singh with the wonderfully talented Simranjeet Singh along with Shilanand Lakra and Sumit Kumar. Gurjant Singh was originally there but he too with a late injury has been replaced with Gursahibjit Singh. In fact, Shilanand Lakra and Gursahibjit Singh played in the Junior Indian team at the 2018 Sultan of Johor Cup that reached the final. Lakra had four goals while Gursahibjit Singh two in the tournament. Shilanand was also a part of the 2018 Azlan Shah team.

The big guns missing from the Indian line-up are Harmanpreet Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh, Chinglensana, Lalit Upadhyay, Dilpreet Singh, SV Sunil and Akashdeep Singh; the selection committee judiciously giving them time to recover from injuries and niggles looking at the Olympic Qualifying looming ahead.

It's also time to balance hope against reality. Burden comes in different forms €" history, legacy, fan pressure. Winning is a product of multiple strategies and just the appointment of an experienced coach isn't going to solve it. Giving 'time' as a factor has never been given its due place in our hockey system. Pressure situations have always got the better of India. Last year was a perfect example €" 4th place at the Commonwealth Games, Champions Trophy final against Australia, Asian Games semi-final against Malaysia and the World Cup quarter-final against Holland; in almost all the matches, India were in winning situations before throwing it all away.

Yair Galily, a sports psychologist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, in Israel, and Elia Morgulev, in a study, went through three decades of NBA playoffs and found that teams did worse in must-win situations than when the stakes were low or equal for both teams. In the hockey World Cup, Belgium came back from losing situations to win the trophy. Maybe, there is a lesson. Free the mind to increase the odds of success. The glorious past will always be there. It doesn't belong to the present team. For this team what they create will belong to them.

Tough competition in Ipoh will come from almost all the teams. They know India has a relatively inexperienced side and morale gets a boost if you beat the 5th ranked team in the world. Canada (10th), South Korea (17th), hosts Malaysia (13th), Asian Games champions Japan (18th) will be a handful. Poland (21), the team that replaced South Africa will try and figure out India before meeting them again at the Olympic Qualifiers in Bhubaneswar; Japan will also be in India's pool at the Olympic Qualifiers.

The management would have looked up the numbers of 2018, at least for the Commonwealth Games, Champions Trophy and the World Cup. They aren't inspiring. It's in those areas that improvement could be the difference between winning big and finishing small. Out of 146 field goal shots at the three above tournaments, 17 goals were scored. 67 PCs led to 18 goals; a total of 35 goals in three tournaments.

Coach at two of the above tournaments before being asked to leave after the World Cup (Champions Trophy and World Cup), Harendra Singh believes the team has it in them to deliver. "It's a case of trust, faith and giving time to both player and coach," he says without malice.

Japanese coach Siegfried Aikman had once spoken about an 'emotional disconnect' when playing matches. "Some teams play on emotion and some others disconnect themselves. It depends on the path taken to achieve victory."

It's an insight into India's ups and downs in world hockey and the lack of a significant big win since the 75' World Cup. If not a parallel, but close and educative of India's issues in big tournaments, is a New York Times article on Gael Monfils inability to win Majors despite having some of the most miraculous shots. Giles Simon analysed it thus: "The emotional part with Gaël is much more important than with any other player: It's almost all of it. He doesn't like to win 6-1, 6-1. He needs some drama at some point. The showman who likes to play tricky shots will show up, and he forgets to win the match." Sounds familiar.

2019. Less pressure. Free mind. Maybe, the national team would start winning more matches and the all-important Finals.

Also See: Sultan Azlan Shah Cup: Indian hockey team vice-captain Surender Kumar says upcoming tournament litmus test for youngsters

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