Hockey World Cup: India facing 'the last mile problem', writes Sundeep Misra
After the 1-2 loss to England, even the English journalists admitted India deserved to win the game but, yes, that's the way the cookie crumbles, says Sundeep Misra
AJ Leibling, one of the greatest boxing writers who wrote regularly for The New Yorker, once described a Rocky Marciano vs Archie Moore bout as: Marciano volleyed punches so quickly, he thought, that Moore simply tired of getting out of their way.
India skipper Sardar Singh (left) vies with England's Nick Catlin on Monday
In the match against England, the Indians punched so often, ran in-numerable rings around the English that it made them tired and dizzy. They grew weary of dominating for such lengths of time that when it came to picking up the rewards, they didn't have much muscle left. England came to the party late but walked off with the bubbly.
You can't feel sorry for the Indians. But the lasting image of the match is not Simon Mantell flinging his stick on the ground after snatching a last minute winner; but of Sreejesh, the Indian goalkeeper, kneeling on the ground, chin on stick, trying not to rewind the last minute.
Even in the past, 20 years, India have dominated and lost. The only difference here at this World Cup has been the level of disciplined domination they have brought into their game. They after a long time look 'coached.'
The last time, India seemed to have adapted to a 'coached' system was when Jose Brasa came in to head the coaching department. The defeats do matter.
In sport, what counts in the ultimate analysis is a win; the number of victories. But, here at The Hague, India after two matches have zero points.
In the worst case scenario, it should have been a point each from the first two games. After the 1-2 loss to England, even the English journalists admitted India deserved to win the game but, yes, that's the way the cookie crumbles.
It's too early to see a silver lining in the tournament. Terry Walsh, the Indian coach, sat at the press conference after the match against England, a little lost for words.
What he had just seen was a team coming of age, growing up gradually but on the points tally, there was nothing to show for all that effort. Yes, England was lucky, even their coach Bobby Crutchley admitted, 'we rode our luck.'
But words won't calm the disappointment and frustration the players must be feeling. Maybe, if they understand the pain of growing up or suddenly from being pygmies they are being shown they have the potential to be giants, they would take the lessons in their stride and look beyond the defeats.
In India, it is fashionable to put down anything that doesn't win. But sometimes, there is a thin line between defeat and victory. And it's not only about the points and the position in the pool table, it's also about coming out of the well, Indian hockey has clamped itself in.
Poor coaching methods and no link to the level world hockey has risen was a bigger frustration for the players than just the defeats. India's High-Performance director Roelant Oltmans said, "Don't ask us what Indian hockey requires," he said on questions relating to Indian vs foreign coaches. "Ask the players."
India still has three matches to go in the Pool stage. And anything can be accomplished. But it will be good thing, if the players and the management are persisted with.
It's been years since an Indian team held onto the ball and didn't indulge in show-man ship. Though, once or twice in a match, it is helpful to tell the audience what the Indians are capable off. But keeping the ball within them – Sardar, Manpreet Singh and Gurbaz Singh – actually showed patience in hockey is also an asset.
The Gurbaz of old would have run down the left flank, dodging past a few players, losing the ball and then outpaced by the opponent forward. Most often, it resulted in a goal or a penalty corner.
Now they appear solid at the back. They rotate the ball, confident that they have Sardar, one of the best ball-players in the world who can move forward when the need arises.
Against England, if luck would have been an Indian, the score line should have been 3-1; the stroke that was cancelled out by the video umpire also needs a look-in. If an umpire awards a stroke for what he believes was a strong enough foul, it should at least result in a penalty corner or a free hit.
The bully-off outside the circle seems like a man sentenced to death by hanging for murder has been let off with a year's all paid trip to his favourite destination.
India has a group that can grow in their shoes and actually dominate world hockey; or at least be counted among the top four. Marc Lammers, the Belgium coach and the one who took the Dutch women to the 2008 Olympic gold, said: "They play like a top four side. It's just a matter of time before they start dominating."
To dominate for periods in a match is easy. But to dominate for long periods consistently and to win consistently requires serious planning and huge amounts of patience. India does have weaknesses. They require a goal poacher. Or try and convert Mandeep Singh into a consistent scorer.
He scored brilliantly against Belgium but missed two open chances against England. Sardar, the captain, said, "It's his first World Cup and he is learning and after more exposure he would be a world class."
Akashdeep Singh is another player who has impressed. His positioning is excellent and has the knack of knowing where the ball might come from. His goal against Belgium was top class. The others playing excellent hockey are Dharamvir Singh, Kothajit, Chinglesana and the goalkeeper Sreejesh.
The Malaysian coach Muhammad Dharma Raj, speaking about India, said, "India should win its match against Spain. Your team is playing very well. Everybody's talking about you guys."
Even though, Spain is not at the top of its game, India will be stupid to take them lightly. At the moment, points are of essence to be able to stay in the run for a higher classification finish. England and Spain have already split points and a few upsets might turn the table upside down.
India needs to look ahead. And not cry over spilt milk. Their matches against Spain and Malaysia are of huge importance. Professional sport always teaches us more when we lose. And if the Indians start learning from their losses, then winning will get much easier and more commonplace.
India, have over the years, produced do-it-yourself forwards. Now they are being taught to be part of a team ethos. Top heavy Indian teams had the brilliance of players like in the past – Harbinder Singh, Mohammed Shahid, Jagbir Singh, Dhanraj Pillay – but today, the rear guard action needs strengthening.
Disciplined backs, sneaky midfielders and goal poachers are today's requirements. Maybe, finally, we are getting there. It's time for the myopic to start wearing corrective lenses.