Rookies landing on podium good sign for Indian hockey

A third-string Indian side with 10 debutants, that was managed by a rookie coach – Sardar Singh – and began its campaign with an underwhelming draw and a morale-sapping defeat, somehow fought its way onto the podium at the Asia Cup.

Led by captain Birendra Lakra, India put up a solid defensive performance to defend a 1-0 lead for most of the match to beat Japan and win the bronze medal at the continental championship. Compared to the previous edition in 2017, when India won the title, this may seem like a drop in performance if taken at face value. But in reality, this will assume as much significance, if not more.

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After all, none of the players from the 33-men core group were part of this side. Instead, this was a hastily-formed team, consisting of junior India internationals apart from some national team discards, others who had impressed at the national championships and a couple of retired stars who were forced to make a comeback.

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This bunch was assembled with the idea to take part in the Commonwealth Games next month, with the main team focusing on the Asian Games. With the Asiad now postponed, it looks likely that all of them will head to Birmingham as they have given a good account of themselves, forcing the team management to take note of their performances.

Sardar, too, successfully changed the mindset of the team, which looked disjointed and indisciplined in the first match against Pakistan but grew as the tournament progressed to become strong defensively and dangerous on the attack. BJ Kariappa, who is the junior India coach, handled the dugout with Sardar, but it was the former India captain who seemed to be calling most of the shots during matches, making tactical tweaks, barking instructions from the sidelines and putting his arm around the players after defeat.

These facets of Sardar’s coaching style were on display on Wednesday when India edged out Japan by one goal. His team began the match cautiously and held possession in midfield. Karthi Selvam, one of the debutants, linked up well along with another rookie, Vishnukant Singh, in the opening exchanges. Then, in the seventh minute, Uttam Singh – who was one of the standout Indian players in the Junior World Cup last year – made an impressive run on the right to set up his under-21 teammate Raj Kumar Pal inside the circle. Pal slotted the ball home to give India a 1-0 lead.

After that strike, Japan – who were in Jakarta with their full-strength squad given that the 2023 World Cup qualification was at stake for them – began exerting pressure with their quick interplay and won back-to-back penalty corners. But first rusher Yashdeep Siwach denied them on both occasions.

In the second half, India discard Dipsan Tirkey, the tournament’s third-highest scorer with five goals, showed alertness to deal with dangerous balls played into the Indian ‘D’. Along with Lakra and Siwach, he did well to keep the Japanese attackers at bay even though they won a string of penalty corners in the last two quarters and ensured India finished on the podium.

After a disappointing outing in the Asian Champions Trophy and suffering mixed results in the Pro League, the performance over the last week in Jakarta will please the team management.

Chief coach Graham Reid has used the post-Olympics period to experiment with players and tactics, a trend that is likely to continue for a few more matches until he settles on the core group for the World Cup, which will be held in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela . If the performance at the Asia Cup is anything to go by, Reid will have a large pool of players to choose from come January.

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