Hockey World Cup 2023: Are overdependence on Harmanpreet and Hardik's injury responsible for India's ouster?
Hockey World Cup 2023: India is out of the tournament, losing to New Zealand in the crossovers and missing out on the quarterfinals berth. But is it due to overdependence on Harmanpreet Singh and Hardik Singh's injury?
Patchy, inconsistent and need more execution. These words were used frequently by head coach Graham Reid during India's disastrous 023 FIH Men's Hockey World Cup campaign, which undid the team's historic bronze-winning feat at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The choice of adjectives from the veteran coach and former Australia international was indicative of the struggle of his wards in this World Cup. It is despite having 12 players from the Tokyo Games squad. For a team that had come into the tournament with hopes of a first podium finish after the 1975 gold, crashing out before the quarterfinals were nothing short of a debacle.
This team was good enough to reach the quarterfinals, at least, if not the semifinals. But who would have thought that the world number six home side would lose to 12th-ranked New Zealand in the penalty shootout of the crossover match after being ahead by two goals on two occasions?
With crores of rupees spent on the team's training, exposure tours and support staff salaries, it ought to have done better. It was the country's fourth-worst performance in HWC history. The best India can finish in this tournament is ninth, for which they will begin with their classification match against Japan on January 26 in Rourkela.
India is one of the four teams to have taken part in all 15 editions of the HWC, and they had finished below ninth on four occasions -- in 1986 (12th), 1990 (10th), 2002 (10th) and 2006 (10th). They finished ninth in 1998 and 2014. In the last edition, India finished sixth after losing to the Netherlands in the quarterfinals.
The reasons for the early exit are numerous, as Reid said at the post-match press conference on Sunday. Two main reasons were the abysmal rate of penalty corner conversions and the need for finishing by the forwards. Adding to this was the inconsistency in defending. The woes in penalty corner conversion were too evident as India scored just five goals from the 26 penalty corners they earned across four matches. It is less than one-fifth success rate, which is unacceptable for a team seeking to go beyond the quarterfinals.
Of the five goals from the PCs, only two were from direct drag-flick -- one from captain Harmanpreet against Wales and the other from Varun Kumar against New Zealand. The remaining three were scored from the rebounds -- from the sticks of Amit Rohidas, Shamsher Singh and Sukhjeet Singh.
Harmanpreet took most of India's PCs but could score just twice. Though the penalty corner conversion rate has gone down for most of the teams in recent years due to better defending and the use of equipment, India's average of goals from PCs needs to be higher compared to other groups.
Lack of variation in taking penalty corners and relying heavily on Harmanpreet cost India dear. In the Tokyo Olympics, India had a fine drag-flicker in Rupinder Pal Singh along with Harmanpreet, and they scored ten goals from 31 PCs with a healthy one-third conversion rate. Harmanpreet had scored six from the PC in Tokyo to emerge as one of the most lethal drag-flickers in the world. He was named the FIH Player of the Year in the last two years based on PC conversions and solid defending, but form deserted him, at least in drag-flick, in this World Cup.
Then comes "inconsistency" in defending and attacking, which Reid rightly pointed out. The Indian defensive unit did well in the first two pool matches -- against Spain and England -- with two consecutive clean sheets. India beat Spain 2-0 while holding a strong England to a goalless draw. It was harakiri after that as the Indian defence conceded two goals against 14th-ranked and tournament debutants Wales in the last pool match before letting in three against New Zealand to end its campaign.
India squandered a two-goal lead twice -- 2-0 and then 3-1 -- to finish 3-3 at the end of regulation time before losing 4-5 in sudden death against the Black Sticks. The retirement of Rupinder and Birendra Lakra after Tokyo hit India hard as they were replaced in the HWC team by the inexperienced Jarmanpreet Singh and Nilam Sanjeep Xess.
Former captain Manpreet Singh, who will turn 31 in June, could have been at his best in the middle of the park. Reid refused to comment when asked if it was the best available team, saying that he would not speak about it as his side is yet to play two classification matches.
The lack of finishing is the main reason behind India's debacle, as the hosts needed to convert more chances. Against New Zealand, too, India was the dominant side with much more circle penetration, but all those were not converted into goals. "Ultimately, it is the lack of execution [in the finishing]," Reid said after the New Zealand match, summing it up.
Midfielder Hardik Singh's absence in the last two matches after his hamstring injury in the second game against England proved costly. Team-mate Akashadeep Singh has stated the same. Hardik had scored a brilliant goal from a solo effort against Spain in the opening match. The Indian attack lacked variety in his absence against Wales and New Zealand.
Hockey India president and former captain Dilip Tirkey agreed, saying, "we wasted too many scoring opportunities and PCs." It has yet to be determined whether heads will roll in the team or the selection committee after the debacle. Harmanpreet, who took over from Manpreet after the Tokyo Olympics, asserted that his mediocre performance in penalty corner conversions was not due to captaincy pressure but just a lean patch in a prolific career.
Reid, however, added a new dimension to the whole episode, saying that the team needs a mental conditioning coach. His comments meant that his wards struggled to cope with the mental aspect of the game and the pressure of expectations in a home HWC. Reid is not known for giving excuses after a lousy performance, but the onus is on Hockey India and the Sports Ministry to take a call.
Whatever the reasons for this debacle, some experts have doubted that this Indian team would reach the semifinals. They had hoped that the vociferous home support could push the hosts into the last-four stage. But, after the 4-2 victory over tournament newcomers Wales -- when India needed an eight-goal win to qualify for the quarterfinals directly -- doubts started to creep into the minds of the game's most ardent supporters.
(With inputs from PTI)