Chandigarh, November 15
Luck played a big part in the Indian men’s junior team’s title-winning run at the Sultan of Johor Cup last month. Of their six games, India won only two in regulation time. Their entry to the final was only made possible after last-placed Malaysia, who had lost all their previous matches by at least a two-goal margin, drew with contenders Japan in their final pool match.
Luck aside, India’s campaign was characterised by their fighting spirit. A surprise loss to South Africa jeopardised their title quest, but they bounced back to beat Japan. Staring at a defeat that would have virtually ended their campaign, India found a last-minute equaliser against Australia. Against Great Britain, they twice overcame a two-goal deficit in a 5-5 draw that denied the defending champions a place in the final. They then showed nerves of steel to beat Australia in the final after a shootout that saw nine attempts each.
This determination, and ability, to “bounce back” from adverse situations has been a characteristic of the senior team as well. After losing 1-7 to Australia in the pool stage, India went on to win the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics. They rallied from 1-3 down to beat Germany in the third-place match.
In the previous Pro League season, there were many examples of India coming from behind to either draw the game or win it. In the new season, they have already overcome two-goal deficits in their two wins against New Zealand. India coach Graham Reid praised the team’s “self-belief coming to the fore”. “It’s never easy to bounce back from the situation we were in, but it shows the team’s fighting spirit,” he said.
This is not a new aspect of India’s game — they have always performed better in do-or-die situations. India especially thrive when the game spirals into a chaotic, end-to-end affair. Who could forget the thriller from the 2003 Champions Trophy when India rallied from being down 0-2 and 2-4 to beat arch-rivals Pakistan 7-4?
India are much more successful now, though, because there is a method to their madness. They generally play a fast-paced, high-pressing game. But in desperate situations, India turn on the afterburners and throw players forward to unsettle the opposition defence. And they do it with planning — from cornering opposition players to making interceptions to finding the right passes to ensuring they don’t allow counterattacks.
There is also greater composure, which comes from the “belief” that a goal is imminent. The prime reason for this confidence is their phenomenal success with penalty corners. Drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh was India’s top scorer at the Tokyo Olympics and the Pro League’s highest scorer last season, when India finished third. He leads the table this season as well. Unsurprisingly, Indian drag-flicker Sharda Nand Tiwari was the top scorer at the Sultan of Johor Cup.
As expected, the junior team’s fast-paced style resembles that of the senior team. Worryingly though, they also show the same weaknesses. When the game is slowed down and India are pulled into a tactical and physical battle for territorial dominance, their limitations in adapting to the changing pace start to show.
Their intensity drops, meaning they start losing the common balls. They lose concentration and start making basic technical errors in passing, receiving and player-marking, leading to defensive lapses. Australia, Great Britain and even South Africa were able to exploit this weakness at the Sultan of Johor Cup.
It has pegged the senior team back as well. Belgium applied these tactics to perfection in the Tokyo Olympics semifinals to beat India 5-2 after trailing 1-2. Throughout Pro League’s last season, teams were able to neutralise India with a dual-paced game. Australia did it again in the final of the Commonwealth Games.
The problem persists in the new Pro League season. India fell 1-3 behind in both their games against New Zealand. They were also troubled by a tricky Spain, losing the first leg 2-3 and surrendering a two-goal lead for a 2-2 draw in the second. “…it’s more of a mental thing to be switched on throughout the match and not show dominance in patches,” Reid said.
While the junior team has about a year, till the next World Cup, to work on its shortcomings, Reid is running against time to resolve the issue — the senior World Cup, hosted by India, will begin on January 13. However, the fact that the junior team is showing the same weakness as the seniors raises greater concern — suggesting that the problem is systemic and must be solved from the grassroots level upwards.
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