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India must aim to top group in hockey world cup

Let’s hope we will have something to cheer about at the Kalinga Stadium

By Gurbux Singh in Calcutta

  • Published 28.11.18, 4:02 AM
  • Updated 28.11.18, 4:02 AM
Manpreet Singh, 26, is the Indian team's captain.
Manpreet Singh, 26, is the Indian team's captain. Telegraph picture

The 2018 World Cup begins in Bhubaneswar on Wednesday and there is a sense of optimism among the Indian hockey fans this time round.

I remember in the 1973 final, we were leading 2-0 against the Netherlands. There was a call from All India Radio that I have to come to give my views. We conceded two goals and then lost the final on penalties. Within two years, we were in the final again and became the champions.

However, after that victory, India’s performance has gone south. In fact, that was the last time we made it to the semi-finals of a World Cup. It means for 43 years, India have failed to make the grade. It’s time the boys do something worthwhile.

India’s best performance at the Hockey World Cup in the last twenty years has been a lowly eighth position in 2010, that too when they were hosting the event in the capital! In the last edition in the Netherlands, they finished ninth.

Though some attribute India’s poor performance in the last few decades to transition from grass to turf, that argument no longer holds good. India have played enough on the turf to have that as an excuse.

There are enough turf surfaces in India, including the one at the majestic Kalinga Stadium for the Indian team to practice and prepare for big events.

If you ask me, India in this edition, should set the quarter-final berth as the target. For that they will have to top Group C, which also has Belgium, Canada and South Africa. It will not be easy as Belgium, place at No. 3 in the latest rankings, are one of the favourites for the title.

They should be able to get past world No. 11 Canada and world No. 15 South Africa quite easily. However, India should target to pump in as many goals as possible in these two matches, so that even if they manage a draw against Belgium, they could finish top of the group on a better goal difference. A second-place finish also will not be bad, but if we finish third in Pool C, that will be disastrous.

India will definitely bank on the home support. The Bhubaneswar crowd are expected come in droves rooting for their favourite team. Playing in front of the home crowd has its pitfalls too. Particularly, if you start losing. The pressure starts mounting and the players start doubting their abilities. I have seen that happening with the Indian team more often that not.

They are by far the best team in Asia, and are on an upswing, which is reflected both in terms of their ranking as well as their record against arch-rivals Pakistan, against whom they have not lost a single match in over two years!

India are ranked world No. 5 and have performed well on the big stages. They may not have been able to win the biggest tournaments but have performed well in tournaments such as the Champions Trophy, where they finished runners-up to Australia in the last two editions. Their performance in the 2018 edition was quite outstanding, where they lost the final by a whisker.Talking about the team, India have a balanced outfit, with a great mixture of youth and experience. The team under coach Harendra Singh may have faltered at the Asian Games, but they came back strongly at the Asian Hockey Championships.

SV Sunil and Ramandeep Singh are not there. So is Sardar Singh, who has announced his retirement. But we have some players who can pose a few problems to even the best teams.

Odisha’s experienced defender Birendra Lakra, who makes a comeback after missing out the Asian Champions Trophy in Muscat last month due to rehabilitation, will be joined by Amit Rohidas, Surender Kumar, Kothajit Singh and 2016 Junior World Cup winners Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar to form India’s defence, with three of them being specialist drag-flickers.

The midfield will be manned by dynamic captain Manpreet Singh who played a pivotal role in India’s campaign as defending champions at the Asian Champions Trophy. Chinglensana Singh Kangujam will add to the experience in the centre along with young guns Sumit, Nilakanta Sharma, also of the Junior World Cup team, and Hardik Singh, who made his International debut last month.

The forward line has the experienced Akashdeep Singh, Dilpreet Singh, Lalit Upadhyay and Junior World Cup winners Mandeep Singh, Simranjeet Singh.

India’s main problem is poor rate of conversion. If we create six chances, we score one. Add to that our age-old habit of conceding late goals. Remember what had happened in Sydney Olympic Games against Poland? That was 18 years back and we still leak in late goals.

Let’s hope we will have something to cheer about at the Kalinga Stadium. 

  • Gurbux Singh featured in the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games. He was the coach of the Indian team in 1976 Olympics.

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