Ask any genuine sports enthusiast whether India beating Holland in the bronze medal match in the Hockey World League (HWL) Final was more exciting or India winning the cricket Test series against a low-key South Africa and the vote will be for the sticks! It is not to belittle the achievement of cricketers, who won the four-Tests series 3-0, yet even a diehard cricket fan will agree that there is nothing to beat a rousing 60-minute game of hockey compared to a five-day match, which invariably ends in three days, for different reasons. Can there be a more thrilling sight than raining goals, ten in all shared equally in the scheduled time, six of these coming in the last ten minutes, five in the space of six minutes? Mind you, the goals came in the match against the Netherlands.
Then the shoot-out! Surely, everyone must have bet all the savings on India pulling it off, they all knew the man in the goal Parattu Raveendran Sreejesh will get them the returns as he did more often than not in the past. More recently, last year at Incheon, his saves saw India dump Pakistan and fetch them a direct berth in the Rio Olympics as continental champions. Battered and bruised limbs with multiple injuries, it was a miracle he was in a position to stand up in his goalkeeper’s gear. Come to think of it, the same man let in five Dutch goals, but they faded into insignificance because the Indians knocked in as many at the other end. Sreejesh is not one to brood or let his failures affect him or his work. He apparently took pain-killers to keep India alive. He did make the shoot-out look totally different and, no trace of what happened during the 60 minutes.
He stood his ground as he faced the Dutch onslaught, this time one on one. He gave everything he had, unmindful of his sore body. His two priceless saves put India on the podium at an FIH event after 33 years. He forgot his pain seeing the gleeful faces his countrymen. The victory is all the more resounding after being beaten by the Dutch 1-3 at the pool stage and in arrears 0-2 in the third place game. India moved two places up to sixth in the last four months and from double-digit ranking last year, leaving their other continental powerhouses Korea at eighth and Pakistan in 10th spot. Oltmans is right, by all means celebrate the Raipur bronze, but in the euphoria don’t forget the team has a long way to go to be among the top six at Rio, the booster notwithstanding. For that consistency is a must. How does one explain sharing a three-match series with world’s top team Australia in the run up to the HWL and lose to Argentina in the first match of the finals. Lose to the Dutch and fight back to outshoot them. Yes, there are problems upfront and right at the back as well, the holes have to be plugged.
In a team game and that, too, in a high-voltage tournament it is not easy to pick the stars. Remove Sreejesh and skipper Sardar Singh from the line-up the team may not be able to stand up to the rigours of an international match-up. The two were outstanding. With Sreejesh in goal, coach Roelant Oltmans could even push Sardar up in the attacking mix from the midfield. To have an all-rounder like Sardar makes life easy for the team, a player who can make the power of total hockey meaningful. From hockey’s synthetic turf to cricket’s natural surroundings. The word pitch has unpleasant connotations in cricket today. In every Test in the series skipper Virat Kohli had to face a question on the quality of pitch and he parroted the same answer: Players job is to play in the conditions they get whatever the media thinks and writes. After the series ended in his home town Delhi, he went a step further to say that much of what was written attributing victories to the poor pitches was unfair and undermined the efforts of the players. Obviously, he could not have commented on Match Referee Jeff Crowe describing Nagpur pitch as “poor,” he could only take it out on the media, having a dig at the reporters for delaying in bringing up the subject.
Indian captains from Sourav Ganguly onwards seem to have been handed a template of replies to disarm the media, articulation being the difference. Like his predecessors, Kohli announced triumphantly after winning a home series that the team is ready to take anyone at any place. He justifiably pointed to the quality and consistency of the top four batsmen and the contribution of spinners as well as pace men. What he didn’t say is that spinners took 63 wickets and the pacers six in the series. Surprisingly, he didn’t buttress his argument that the pitches were not all that spin friendly, saying that he dropped his third spinner Amit Mishra in two Tests! He was all praise for Ajinkya Rahane, though he didn’t talk much of the top-order failure, pointing out that 200-odd runs in four matches by his top batsmen was good enough in a low-scoring series. For change, the media did not seem to ask about Rohit Sharma’s continued misery. Like all its predecessor teams, this one also looked great after winning at home. It’s time to celebrate, don’t crib is what Kohli wanted to say, but didn’t. Australia’s great opener Matthew Hayden had the last word on pitches when Ravi Shastri hit back at him on being critical of the Nagpur track: “I deserve a voice for the betterment of cricket” after playing 103 Test matches.