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Hockey World Cup: Why India's great expectations came crashing down

The Indian hockey team seemed a shadow of their confident selves at the World Cup. Why did a team that sparkled at the Tokyo Olympics fail at home?

The Indian team crashed out of the Hockey World Cup following a defeat to New Zealand. (ANI)

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The collective silence of 15,000-strong Sunday crowd enveloped the Kalinga Stadium, as in the blink of an eye, India’s World Cup dream came crashing down. Sudden death. The match, and the rollercoaster of emotions, ended as Shamsher Singh missed his chance in the penalty shootout. It had taken more then two hours and 18 penalty shots to separate the two teams, but New Zealand pipped India 5-4 on penalties, after full-time ended at 3-3, to win their crossover match and enter the quarter-finals of the ongoing FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup. For hosts India, this one will cut deep.

Not just because they had failed to go further in the tournament. But also because the high of the podium finish at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, is still fresh in their minds. It was supposed to propel this team to greater heights at a tournament they haven’t traditionally excelled in. Before this, India had won the World Cup only once, a lifetime ago in 1975, and didn’t make it to the semi-final the three previous occasions they hosted the World Cup.

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But while India exceeded expectations during their bronze-medal run in Tokyo, they seemed daunted by it at the World Cup. A raucous crowd came to watch India at both the venues, the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneshwar, and the shiny new mega-stadium in Rourkela, which claims to be the largest hocket stadium in the world with a seating capacity of 20,000. Rather than being buoyed by the support, India crumbled under the pressure of playing at home.

In the group stage, they defeated Spain 2-0 and the match against England finished in a goalless draw. Needing to win by eight goals or more against Wales to make sure they top Pool D, they eked out a nervy 4-2 win. That meant they didn’t automatically qualify for the quarter-final and had to battle it out with New Zealand, who finished third in Pool C.

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India’s coach Graham Reid admitted that the team, already struggling in attack, had let the requisite goal margin against Wales rattle them. Mental conditioning, he repeated after the New Zealand loss, was one of the biggest missing pieces in the puzzle. “Following this, we will work on how we can get a mental coach involved,” the Australian said. “As far as the drills or training are concerned, we do what all other teams do. I have been in this game for a long time and I know what other teams are doing. If there is anything necessary, a silver bullet out there, I do think that (is) mentally.”

Given India’s pedigree in the sport, and the nostalgia that surrounds hockey, hope always seems to override reality. And the reality was, though 12 of the 18 members in the Indian squad belonged to the class of Tokyo 2021, it was barely the same team. It had only a shadow of the cohesion and confidence of the team that put India back on the Olympic podium after 41 years.

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India’s problems were evident early on, as their forwards struggled to put the finishing touches on whatever chances that were created. The going got tougher as they lost midfielder Hardik Singh to a hamstring injury during the pool match against England. The hard-working 24-year-old had been the in-form player, creative in attack and solid in defence, and his absence hit the team hard, especially in the second-half against New Zealand.

Probably the most noticeable area of concern was the lack of penalty corner conversions. India had scored 10 goals from 31 penalty corners during the Tokyo Olympics. At the World Cup, this came down to five from 26. India’s lead dragflicker Harmanpreet Singh was handed captaincy for the World Cup and had arrived at the tournament with great fanfare. After all, he had been a key player in India’s Olympic campaign and topped the charts in FIH Pro League 2021-22 with 18 goals. He’s also a two-time World Player of the Year winner. At the World Cup, he managed only one goal, that too against Wales when the goal was unmanned as the goalkeeper had been substituted in the dying minutes.

“Everyone is talking about the penalty corner conversions,” a frustrated Singh said after India’s shock defeat to New Zealand. “I am trying but it is not coming off. I feel no (extra) pressure (of being the captain). I have to work harder and the same for the team also.”

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India were wasteful against New Zealand as well, converting only two of the 10 penalty corners awarded to them, one of which was an indirect strike. Despite India’s patchy performances in the group matches, and their form, the hosts were expected to overcome the Kiwis. In Pool C, New Zealand had been the under-performers, winning only one of their group matches and that too against World Cup debutants Chile. What added to the expectation of a win was that India had defeated the Black Sticks in their previous two matches in the FIH Pro League. 

In the playoffs on Sunday, India seemed to have the upper-hand for majority of the match. They took the lead in the 17th minute with a well-constructed field goal that started in their own half and ended with an emphatic strike by Lalit Upadhyay. India led by a two-goal margin twice in the match, at 2-0 and then again at 3-1. But rather than running away with the lead, they seemed to seize up. Be it due to fatigue or anxiety, India were a step slower in the third and fourth quarter. They left ample space and time for New Zealand to mount a comeback.

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While India had struggled in attack through the tournament, the defence had stood strong, picking up clean sheets in the first two matches. But even India’s defence collapsed on the day as mistakes and lethargy seeped in. With only a minute left to go for half-time, New Zealand scored their opening goal. Man-of-the-match Sean Findlay initiated the move on the left flank, passed the ball to Simon Child at the baseline, who set up Sam Lane perfectly for a simple tap-in finish. While the ball exchanged sticks with a practised precision, the Indian defence froze. Similarly, New Zealand’s second goal was a result of Nilam Sanjeep Xess breaching the five-yard rule. It saw the Kiwis being granted their first penalty corner and they converted it without skipping a beat.

“It is very hard to answer questions after such a loss,” said Reid. “It is (lack of) skill execution at the end of the day; we need to work on that. Tonight, we lacked consistency. In the last quarter, for example, we let ourselves down. We threw the ball away, kept doing stuff like that. Things like that made it very difficult for ourselves.”

New Zealand converted their second penalty corner as well, with Findlay getting a fine final touch to make it 3-3. If it wasn’t for goalkeeper Krishan Pathak, who came up with an incredible save in the dying seconds, the match wouldn’t even have gone to a shootout.

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It was again the goalkeeper, this time the experienced P.R. Sreejesh, who kept India alive in the shootout after Abhishek and Shamsher missed their shots. But the veteran was injured in the line of fire in sudden death, but not without giving India another chance at victory as he saved from Nic Woods. But Harmanpreet, inexplicably, went for a direct hit, which was saved by goalkeeper Leon Hayward. The match continued to fluctuate as both India and New Zealand scored in the next set, and missed in the set after. Then, up stepped Sam Lane, who had fluffed his chance of closing the penalty shootout earlier, but made no mistake this time. The nerve-racking, seemingly never-ending night finished with Hayward pawing off the attempts by Shamsher before time finally ran out.

India will next play the classification match against Japan on Thursday before they go back to the drawing board.

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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