The story of the demise of sub-continent hockey is a recurring nightmare for fans in India and Pakistan every time the Olympics arrive. The last time India won a gold medal was in Moscow, 1980 and Pakistan in Los Angeles, 1984.
For three almost three decades since — as the emphasis in the sport shifted from just dribbling skills and dexterity to include supreme fitness and stamina — both these countries have languished to remain among the top teams though it must be mentioned that Pakistan won the World Cup in 1994.
As this is being written, Pakistan have just been whipped 7-0 by Australia while to finish fourth in Group A, which means no place in the semi-final for them. India meanwhile, are a couple of hours away from playing their last group match against Belgium and still seeking their first point!
Indeed, India’s performance has been so galling. True, getting into the Olympics itself was a fine achievement, but once reaching London, it appears to have been a case of expecting too much from a squad that was just not equipped to deliver.
The team began promisingly despite the 2-3 defeat against Netherlands in the opening game. The players had a spring in their steps, and showed chutzpah in their approach against a very strong opponent.
That should have been the stepping stone to more inspired performances, but strangely and sadly it has been all downhill since then as the players have flagged — in speed, skills, and motivation.
Against New Zealand, they had their chances especially after Sandeep Singh converted a penalty corner in the second minute of the match. By half-time though, the scoreline showed New Zealand 3-1 ahead as India surrendered the lead in a listless performance.
That match was lost 4-1. Worse was to follow. While it was too much to expect a win over strong German, a 2-5 scoreline was a hiding. The nadir was perhaps reached against South Korea, who beat Bharat Chhetri’s team 4-1, leaving India with the embarrassing challenge of ensuring against finishing 12th in these Games.
What’s gone so seriously wrong may need a more detailed post-mortem and analyses, but coach Michael Nobbs frustrations — which he voiced during the Games — suggest problems more than just to do with technique and speed.
After the match against Netherlands, Nobbs said that his team was overawed by the Dutch. After the defeat against New Zealand, he said that the players were not understanding his instructions or tactics.
After being routed by Germand and South Korea, he questioned the motivation of the players, saying that most seemed happy just to be at the Olympics and winning did not seem to matter to them.
He did say, after all that, that the team needs to be given time to improve, and that a medal cannot be regained overnight.
But in Nobbs’ increasing despair, his helplessness, the gap between India and the top-notchers in international hockey is evident. Clearly it’s going to be a long road uphill from here to a place on the podium in an Olympics.