Bronze comes with reality check for Indian hockey

The Asian Champions Trophy might lack an overall context but for India, the last one week has shown that their path to an Asian Games gold, and through that to the Paris Olympics, won’t be as straightforward as many would have imagined.

On almost all counts – be it depth of talent or the amount of investment, the number of matches they play or the scale of recent achievements – the Tokyo Olympics bronze medallists are head and shoulders above the rest of Asia. Curiously though, the team has struggled to translate that dominance on the field, as evidenced by their performance in Dhaka over the past week.

South Korea scripted a stunning comeback, equalising with 0.01 seconds remaining, to beat Japan 4-2 via a tie-breaker to win the gold medal. India, meanwhile, huffed their way past a resilient Pakistan, who haven’t qualified for the last two Olympics, beating them 4-3 to finish third in the five-team tournament. It was a classic India-Pakistan match: free-flowing attacks, porous defences, lacking structure and discipline but providing plenty of goals.

But looking at the bigger picture, however, the bronze medal at the Asian Champions Trophy holds little significance. If anything, it has only extended India’s wait for a continental title.

The last time India outrightly won an Asian competition was four years ago, when the Sjoerd Marijne-coached team clinched the Asia Cup. Since then, they have lost in the semifinals twice – in the Asian Champions Trophy this week and at the 2018 Asian Games – and the only final they reached during this period, at the ACT in 2018, got washed out due to heavy rain.

India only have themselves to blame for being unable to stamp their authority on Asian hockey, despite routinely pulling off podium finishes at global events. On most occasions, complacency and indiscipline have contributed to the slip-ups. And India nearly tripped once again on Wednesday against Pakistan.

Nothing illustrated this better than India’s plight in the closing stages of the match. After overcoming a 2-1 half-time deficit, India secured a two-goal cushion in the final quarter. But soon after going 4-2 up, they relaxed, allowed Pakistan to reduce the margin, then made clumsy tackles in desperation, leading to the team getting reduced to nine men, which nearly cost them the match.

Tough act to follow

The reason India finished on the podium at the Olympics was that they stuck to the game plan, were always strong on the ball, made sharp runs off possession, played aggressively without sacrificing their structure, and maintained a high level of discipline.

Half of the players from the medal-winning side were rested for this tournament as coach Graham Reid used this event to give opportunities to some players who hadn’t played internationally for more than two years. The lack of exposure showed throughout the competition in terms of decision- making with the ball, off-the-ball running and the general inability to cope with the pressure and intensity of the games.

In the last two years, owing to the pandemic, India had focused single-mindedly on preparing for the Olympics. But the Junior World Cup and the Asian Champions Trophy have shown the amount of work that needs to be done to bring those outside the Olympic core group up to standard.

The fact that India fielded a largely second-string side in this competition can’t be an excuse either as other teams have had it worse. Pakistan, for instance, couldn’t even train properly for a couple of years due to paucity of funds while South Korea hadn’t had meaningful international games for this duration. Japan, like India, had rested some of their Olympic stars. Still, India couldn’t beat South Korea, lost to Japan and struggled to beat Pakistan. Malaysia, who didn’t travel to Dhaka due to Covid-related travel restrictions but will most certainly compete at the Hangzhou Asian Games where the stakes will be higher, will only make it trickier for India.

Since the purpose of this competition was to give the players some match time, India won’t panic yet. But as the team heads into a busy 2022, the Asian Champions Trophy will serve as a timely wake-up call.

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