Sport is an expression. And no team articulated it better than Germany on Sunday. Bluntly put, the bronze medal play-off should have been a straight execution; Germany, the lambs, being cut down by sheer numbers of the opposition. But in a different sense, Germany was David to India’s Goliath. In pure numbers, it was 16 vs 11. It should have been a mismatch. It wasn’t.
For those who didn’t know, Germany was missing 5-6 players not only on the pitch but also on the bench. Beyond a point, the Germans were physically over. They played like automatons. In fact, like in the marathons, athletes sometimes lose their physical ability and what keeps them running on asphalt is simply the drill. That’s exactly what happened to Germany against India.
The final score-line, however, was 2-1 in India’s favour. For the packed Kalinga Stadium, it was a victory to savour. Seconds after the hooter went, the Germans sank to the turf, some prone, some bent over their sticks, some relieved that 120 minutes of hard hockey — two matches with less than 20 hours in between. German captain Martin Haner, Julius Meyer, Christopher Ruhr and Marko Miltaku had fever. Weinke and Linnekogel also fell ill while Timur Oruz, member of the 2016 Olympic bronze-winning team had to fly back with an injury.
India were full strength. It was a bronze medal tempered with the knowledge that much work needs to be done. For an Indian team with more than 1400 matches between them, excuses of not being experienced didn’t cut much ice. For the moment, celebrating the win is more important before coming back to the drawing board where the path to the 2018 World Cup needs to be clearly lit up.
At the Kalinga, the performance was tepid, sometimes hazy. The worrying aspect is the yo-yo nature of this Indian team; almost perfect performances on some days, incredibly pathetic on others. It’s probably in the nature of how we play that the gremlins invade our minds. Consistency is not something we strive for. In terms of priority, it has always come after skills. Otherwise, how do you show a balanced possession between both the teams — India’s 52 percent to Germany’s 48?
It should have been quite the opposite. The argument is India plays a different style while the Germans keep rotating and probing. India relies on speed, skill and the sprint to kill the defence. But against an opponent whose legs were giving away, we should have annihilated them. On the contrary, we almost lost the match. Germany had seven penalty corners but no conversions to show — unlike Germany. India had 20 circle entries and only one field attempt — so much India. So is the direction right? Are we growing as a team? To keep saying that India has a new coach is not enough anymore. This is a bunch that should know how to win at least against depleted sides. SV Sunil, Rupinder Pal Singh, Kothajit, Harmanpreet Singh, Manpreet Singh, SV Uthappa, Akashdeep Singh, Chinglensana, Mandeep Sigh are all players with experience at World Cups and the Olympic Games, and that’s the worrying aspect.
Opportunities were aplenty against Germany. Crosses fizzed in, but there was nobody at the end of the line. The right flank provided 70 percent of the play, while the left portion of the German striking circle could have accommodated a bunch of spectators, so unused it was. The only time we had a clear sight on goal was when Harmanpreet opened up the defence with a lovely pass that went to Akashdeep on the left side of the German striking circle. His reverse shot rebounded off the German goalkeeper’s pads and found Sunil, whose slap-hit went into the corner.
That was the only time when India stretched the Germans. Despite the goal, we were back to playing in a bunch, like a gaggle of school kids not willing to hand over the ball. At times, India plays mesmerising hockey — fast, first touch, dodge, one-touch dribble, subtle deflection. And at times, they cannot hold the ball, or even trap.
Sjoerd Marijne is due for a three-week break. But he would probably try and understand this nature of Indian hockey. He did praise Germany’s performance later.
“It was a great performance from Germany. They fought really hard. We wanted to score early. The way they played, it was not a system we are used to. The players were a little bit scared, to lose the ball. I am happy with the win, because matches like these are not easy. Of course, we can improve,” Marijne said.
India’s midfield play wasn’t expressive enough. With players like Uthappa, Manpreet, Chinglensana and at times even Lalit operating from the half-line, the potency should have been there. But with the captain, Manpreet Singh, also keeping an eye on the defence, forward movement remains stunted a bit. Probably that was one of the reasons why India operated on the right flank with Amit Rohidas and Kothajit, all feeding Sunil.
Yet, you need control in those parts of the match where India has to slow the pace down. It’s impossible to play at high speed constantly. In such tactics, losing the ball is part of the script. But the turnover is dangerous. And Germany showed that. Mats Grambusch, at times, went in alone and almost created goals. Thrice in the match, he shot out even though he had Karkera at his mercy. But credit to the Indian goalkeeper for keeping the penalty corners out. It was good to see him come off his line and take the flick on the gloves or pads. The German Niklas Bruns would be disappointed for having missed six of the seven that he flicked.
Marijne speaks about consistency. To be fair, he is right to be worried. But that has been the underlying theme of all the coaches who have tried to do something with this Indian team — Brasa, Terry Walsh, Roelant Oltmans and now Marijne. It’s not out of the ordinary to understand that players are mentally brittle. The team also needs to ramp up its ambition quotient.
“The most important thing is consistency,” said Marijne. “That’s the thing we need to work on. We played at the highest level. Now we can take steps, what we need to change. We will take our time for that. We have to learn our lessons. The easier thing is to see what we didn’t do well. I know that. But if you create chances, it means you did something good.” By the same logic, Germany did better, and India need to be worried.
Yet finishing on the podium is a high. Mentally, that was important. Yes, steps need to be taken. What is important for India is not winning the bronze or the sure-shot medal at the Commonwealth Games or the Asian Games gold but what we put on the pitch at the 2018 World Cup. The Asian Games gold is important for qualifying directly to the 2020 Olympics. But bigger questions need to be answered about the composition of the team.
It would be wonderful to allow Manpreet to grow as captain. But the defence needs work. Even a player of the calibre of Harmanpreet Singh did a stupid error when India led 2-1 giving Germany a penalty corner; that it didn’t work out was a relief.
But India will need to look at players kept out like Surender, Sardar, Pardeep Mor and Ramandeep. Mor’s runs were missed and it’s perplexing that players are dropped out of the mix without reasons being explained. Experience has a value and more than Marijne, one believes David John, the high-performance director should understand that. Indian hockey has constantly re-jigged teams, rebuilt groups without realising that every 2-4 four years players cannot be axed or re-assigned because of a change in tactics.
It’s not Indian hockey’s fault that every second year we have a new coach. It also means new players. Marijne spoke about the belief in the team. “For me it’s always about the team, not the individuals. We want to score 100 goals. There are seven young guys who played the tournament at the highest level against top countries. The guys train so hard to improve PCs. I hope you are proud as well that they won the bronze medal. I am proud. We can see now that we can play against every country. Players really believe they can beat every country. That’s a big step.”
German coach Stefan Kermas brought it down to emotion. “I think this game I spoke only about emotional things,” he said. “But it’s always good to keep the emotions down and find little tiny small things. This match was quite easy for me, because I just had to concentrate on the pitch. Today the whole power and spirit came off the team. It was not my idea to plan, it was their idea. The idea to win for each other can be most important.”
With a bronze around their necks, feet on the podium where a year later they would play the World Cup, India need to find that fine balance, eradicate the weaknesses and look out for the rapiers the others are already sharpening.