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This is not my team
The last time India won a hockey match at the Olympics - Athens 2004 - the world had not heard of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps had won only eight medals. Clearly, London 2012 has been Indian hockey's lowest point ever.
Michael Nobbs has forgotten to smile these days. Coaching the Indian hockey team does that to the best of people. The Australian, who represented his country along with the great Ric Charlesworth in the 1984 Olympic Games, wanted to make a difference as a coach this time, with the Indian hockey team. He wanted to make the forgotten boys of world hockey play the flair game and win some too.
He knew that any thought of a medal was beyond even the realm of fantasy;but he was hopeful of taking this world No. 10 team to the top six. "If that happens, it would be an amazing result, " he had said. It did not. Not even a fight for the top eight. Now, India are fighting to avoid the wooden spoon. And Nobbs has forgotten to smile.
So, what would you describe this as? Eight years after getting back into the elite 12, you end up playing five games in the league without a win, without even a draw. It's not only Nobbs - everyone associated with this game in the country, the players, officials, fans have been stunned into silence.
The first game against the Dutch was not so bad. A 2-3 result against a team which has been among the top three for years, gave some hope. So what if the Indians forgot to play in the first half. They could hit back. You were fooled by those two goals.
Match after match, against New Zealand (1-3 ), Germany (2-5 ), South Korea (1-4 ) and then Belgium (0-3 ), you waited for something magical to happen. It did not. Nobbs was living in false hope and so was everyone else.
Would you call it a disaster? Not if you see a world No. 10 slide down a slot or two. But yes, if you want a No. 10 to move up even two slots. It's as simple as that. After qualifying through a tough grind, the Indians had given themselves the chance of telling the world, 'We belong. '
In 1948, when London hosted the games, an independent India won its first hockey gold under Kishan Lal. That was ages ago. There was no sense of history when the current lot played on an ugly blue turf at the Riverbank Arena.
So, what went wrong? Let us listen to what the coach has to say: "The forwards forgot the basics of the game. The players who were doing nothing wrong just months ago made basic errors like trapping. If you can't trap at this stage, don't play. You can't go out to play, they have to listen to instructions. "
Nobbs was spot on. He said that seniors like Shivendra Singh, Gurwinder Chandi, even Tushar Khandekar should "move on". He would have been secretly cursing himself for leaving out Rajpal Singh and Arjun Halappa;they would have at least known what to do.
No team in the world plays with just one player playing like a dream and the others playing catch-up. There is no doubt that playmaker Sardar Singh is special and probably the best in the world in his position. But the way he had to work overtime in every match, you would not blame him if he decides to quit in disgust. He did everything, saw things fall in pieces around him and yet tried to defend the boys.
Boys? Yes that's what the Indian players looked like in London. There was no one willing to take the next big step towards manhood. If the forwards redefined the art of missing easy chances, Sandeep Singh, the match-winner, the dreaded drag flicker, simply lost form. How you lose form at such a stage was beyond everyone. The forwards did not help his case by earning more penalty corners.
And the defence? India went into the Olympics with a porous defence but with the hope that it would hold on at critical junctures. But none in the defence cashed in on the big moment, consumed apparently by the occasion and the opposition. India let in 18 goals in five matches. You don't let in so many and hope to win.
Yes, there are huge issues with the forward line but can you still defend? You can't let in five against Germany and hope to hit back five, they won't let even Australia do that, forget India.
There was a lot of talk about Indian going in with two goalkeepers. You don't go to the Olympics with just one goalkeeper, Nobbs had argued. The logic was fine but you could see he was handicapped while making rotational substitutions. It would not have mattered had the Indian defence not been leaking or the forwards had remembered to shoot straight, though.
On the technical front, India had enough circle penetrations, made enough moves and created enough opportunities. The match against Belgium was the best example. The Belgians looked under pressure, stonewalled India and relied on counter-attacks to score three goals. The Indians kept counting the missed chances.
Nobbs has suggested changes in the team. He is happy with the attitude of the younger lot but wants some seniors to go. He wants better international exposure for the team. "Let us stop looking at Azlan Shah and other smaller tournaments. Play the top teams regularly;have home series against Germany, Australia and the Netherlands, " he says.
A key point here is that Hockey India and the sports ministry have given the coach whatever he wanted after taking charge, including the three-nation, fournation tournaments in the run-up to the Games here.
So it is up to the coach to plan an itinerary well in advance now. If he is staying on, he better have no excuses in the future. The players can't change overnight - they can't be good one day and become pathetic on another day. It also boils down to tactical planning, to the technical inputs coming in.
The spotlight will now be on the coach. The others can conveniently forget hockey for a while.
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