Despite thrashing arch rivals Pakistan twice by big margins, the Indian team’s campaign at the recently concluded Hockey World League (HWL) Semi-Finals in London was largely a disappointing experience….writes Ajeyo Basu
The team finished at a disappointing sixth position after an embarrassing 2-3 loss to minnows Canada in the play-off for the fifth spot.
Prior to that, the eight-time Olympic champions were handed a shock 2-3 defeat by Malaysia. Although not among the top teams in the world by a big margin, Malaysia have proved to be a difficult team for India several times in the past and this tournament was no different.
The only redeeming feature of India’s campaign were the two massive wins over Pakistan.
The two sub-continent teams first met in a Pool B clash in which India inflicted a 7-1 humiliation on Pakistan — their biggest win over their bitter rivals till now. They next met in a classification match for the fifth to eight spots in which India outclassed Pakistan by a 6-1 margin.
In both matches, the contrast in playing styles and quality of the two teams were stark.
Pakistan are still stuck with the classic Asian style which Indian players used to employ not too long ago. Their tendency of dribbling too much, too many long balls and leaving gaping holes in the defence while going on the attack is strikingly similar to what their counterparts across the border used to do till around a decade ago.
They also easily lost the ball in midfield and the co-ordination between the midfielders and forwards could do with some improvement.
The Indians, on the other hand, have moved closer towards achieving a successful blend of Asian and European styles. The transformation had gathered pace under former India coach Michael Knobbs.
The Indian players now tend to maintain better possession in midfield and the build up play has also improved.
However, there are several aspects where the Indians need to improve a lot. Penalty corner conversion will be the top agenda on the list.
The Indians lack too much variations in their penalty corners and the conversion rate is really poor when compared to Australia and the top European teams.
The typical ‘desi’ style of taking penalty corners is to blast the ball with full power towards the rival goal. Accuracy and variations are not really our strong points.
While this approach does fetch results on a few occasions, it is not too effective against the top teams who excel in rushing the stopper and hitter and cramping them for space.
The fact that the Indians converted only seven of the 27 penalty corners they earned over the course of the tournament indicates the amount of improvement they have to achieve in order to match the top teams.
The match against Holland also exposed the gap between Indians and European players in terms of tactical expertise. On too many occasions, the Indians were caught on the wrong foot whole going on the attack as the speedy Dutch counter-attacks caused the defence all sorts of problems.
The finishing was also poor during the matches against Holland, Malaysia and Canada with many of the half chances being wasted.
The poor performance at the HWL Semi-Final will not have too much of an effect on the Indian team as they have already qualified for the 2018 World Cup to be held in Odisha by dint of being the hosts.
All the matches of the 2018 World Cup will be played at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar from November 24 to December 16.
The Indians have a little less than 18 months to sort out their problems if they want to avoid another disappointing performance in a major tournament — this time in front of their home fans.