A cause for celebration for Indian hockey (Column: Just Sport)

If the Indian women’s hockey team can justifiably take pride in qualifying for the Rio Olympics, the men can continue to gloat over the fact that they were the first to make it to the Games, giving them two extra years to prepare for the mega event.

Call it the liberal qualification system or what you may, the fact remains that the teams must display some modicum of skills and performance to make it to the Olympics. The Indian girls for their sheer grit and perseverance deserve to be there and they need to be complimented for qualifying for the Olympic Games after 36 years.

Purely on technical grounds, the Indians need to wait till all the continental championships and their qualifiers are decided to fill the remaining berths with the reserves, India being one. For all practical purposes, they will be among the 12 teams at Rio.

They knew and so did the entire world when they finished fifth at the Hockey World League Semifinal at Antwerp they had virtually booked the passage to Rio, barring unimaginable results in the remaining continental championships.

The wait is not for long, by this month-end they will know that they are in. There are 12 slots, five are for continental champions and six qualified from the two Hockey World League Semifinals – three each from Valencia and Antwerp legs.

The continental champions finishing among the top three to make sure they qualified, there will surely be a couple of teams making it from boththe qualifiers, opening up a couple of Olympic spots for countries which missed out making semi-finals to qualify from the two World Leagues.

Germany, Great Britain and China have secured the three Olympic berths from Valencia while The Netherlands, South Korea and Australia got through from the Antwerp route but the Koreans have already booked the Rio berth winning the Asian Games gold medal. So, by finishing fifth, India made sure they move in as a reserve team to qualify.

Too many factors are going in India’s favour.If Britain, The Netherlands or Germany win the European title, India can move into the berth released by the winners. Also, Australia or New Zealand have to grab the Oceania championship to vacate another slot and finally if Argentina or the United States win the Pan-American championship, India are through.

The girls, who returned home Monday morning, are already talking of getting into training straightaway. That shows the will to do well in the young team, the average age of which is 24.

If Rani Rampal is the player to go to for goals, goalkeeper Savita has shown she is no less daring than her men’s team counterpart Sreejesh. Both the goalkeepers did enough, but all the goals they conceded were against the best teams in the world. They are happy that the have not got the Olympic berth by gratis like the 1980 team got because of pull-outs from the Moscow Olympics on the Afghan issue and they want to make a fist of it.

The men’s team has realised and also admit that they cannot aspire to be among the elite with their shaky defence and shoddy finishing upfront. The six goals they conceded to Australia, five to Britain and four to Belgium tell their own story.

The fans were lulled into believing that the Indians are thereabout at the top by scoring over the big guns in bilateral series like they did against Australia. But that is one of those things when the hosts are experimenting with their game and the line-up.

One important thing is that the hardcore hockey fans no longer are rejoicing over winning against Pakistan, who like India did in 2008, have failed to qualify for the Rio Games. What they are not convinced about the team doing any better in the Olympics is borne out their showing against the tougher opponents.

Imagine, they will be pitted against the top four finishers at Valencia and Antwerp in the World League final at Raipur from November 28 to December 6 and their performance there will give a clear indication as to where do they stand in world hockey. Qualifying alone is not good enough.

Captain Sardar Singh’s remark that the team has to organise its defence is an understatement and so is coach Paul van Ass’s admission that “when pace goes up we fall apart”. Naturally, the speed allows the Europeans to counter-attack.

Sardar wants the develop “enhanced skills” whatever that may mean. He spoke like Mahendra Singh Dhoni when he said laziness has no place in international hockey. That shows how frustrated he is when he says the forwards have to be quick to finish. Wonder what is left in hockey!

Though one can contest Van Ass’s assertion that the Indians are not used to the pace of the game, but he is right that unless the Indians regularly play top international sides both at home and overseas they can’t hope to be a top world class side, their odd spark notwithstanding.

The coach and the team can take comfort from the fact that they will be at Raipur as qualifiers and not merely as hosts. That should give them heart to perform better.

Looking at the stats sent by a highly respected B.G. Joshi, India’s showing against the world’s top 10 teams since the 2012 London Olympics provides a true picture.

India won four of the 14 matches they played against Australia and lost the remaining, scoring 21 goals and conceding 47. Against The Netherlands, the have won only one of the five, scoring eight against 13. Against Germany also, the record is more or less th same, winning one of the five played and drawing one with 12 goals for and 16 against.

India’s record against Belgium is most disturbing, they won two of the seven matches and lost five, scoring nine and letting in 16, whereas against Britain they won one of the five, scoring 13 against 20. They lost their only match against Argentina 2-4 while against New Zealand they managed to win two matches, drew one and lost four, scoring 13 and letting through 17.

The had an even share of success against Korea, winning three of their eight games, losing three and drawing the remaining two. India scored a goal more than South Korea’s 14. Against Pakistan the scoring is tied at 26 from ten matches, India winning only three, losing five and drawing two. Against Spain they played five matches, drew three and lost two by narrow margins as they scored eight goals as against 10.

As for the women, Joshi’s figures do not inspire. They beat Australia, Germany and the US once each, China twice and Japan four times in the last four years whereas they could not win any of their matches against The Netherlands, Argentina, New Zealand and South Korea while they did not play Britain at all. They played matches in double digits against New Zealand (13) and their trans-Tasman neighbours Australia (11).

The stats may make a depressing reading – but India will have both their teams at Rio and that’s cause for celebration.

(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at v.srivatsa@ians.in)

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