New Delhi: It was touted as the year which could herald a change in the fortunes Indian hockey, but 2018 turned out to be yet another saga of missed opportunities for the sport. Much was expected from the three big ticket events — the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the World Cup — but rather than living up to expectations, 2018 turned out to be a year of ‘what-could-have-been’ for the eight-time Olympic champions.
At the start of the year, India were expected to defend their Asian Games title and directly qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. They were also expected to make the semifinals at the World Cup in Bhubaneswar, but all those hopes never turned into reality.
In world rankings, India started the year at number six and ended at fifth, summing up an unaccomplished 2018.The only constant in Indian hockey in the year was frequent “chopping and changing” — from player to coach — after every debacle. The year started with the 27th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh, Malaysia where veteran Sardar Singh returned to lead the side but India had a disappointing outing there, managing only a win and a draw to finish a dismal fifth.
In between, after Roelant Oltmans’ sacking in September 2017, Hockey India (HI) handed the reigns of the Indian men’s team to women’s coach Sjoerd Marijne, a man who had never coached a men’s team before.Similarly, junior men’s World Cup winning coach Harendra Singh was entrusted with the women’s job. Harendra too had never coached a women’s team before, raising serious doubts over HI’s move.
But the experiment came to a premature end following India’s loss to England in the bronze medal match at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April.The CWG outing forced HI to go for a coach swap, probably for the first time in Indian hockey, with Harendra replacing Marijne in the men’s team and the Dutchman rejoining the women’s side.
Amid the chopping and changing of coaches, the captain’s armband also passed many hands after Sardar was dropped from the Commonwealth Games squad and Manpreet replaced him. Every tournament and every bad result prompted HI to go back to its tried and tested formula of “chopping and changing”.
But after Harendra’s elevation to the men’s team, Sardar made a comeback along with goalkeeper PR Sreejesh after a long injury lay-off. They returned for the final edition of the Champions Trophy in Breda, Netherlands, where India recorded its best result of the year, finishing second after losing to Australia in the shoot-out.
Sardar was one of the best performers for India in the Champions Trophy, marshalling the mid-field with aplomb, which earned him a place in the Asian Games squad. India went into the Asiad as favourites to retain the gold medal but it was not to be as the defending champions lost to Malaysia in a shoot-out in the semifinal, eventually returning with a consolation bronze.
But the failure to defend the Asian Games title and a direct berth in Tokyo Olympics was a serious setback and had its share of repercussions, Sardar being the first casualty. Sardar was dropped for the Asian Champions Trophy in Muscat, forcing the hurt mid-fielder to announce retirement. In the ACT, India shared the honours with Pakistan after the final was washed out.
But change remained the only constant for Indian hockey, and this time Harendra decided to make wholesome changes in the World Cup squad, putting his faith on World Cup-winning junior players in place of experienced campaigners like Rupinder Pal Singh and SV Sunil among others.
India’s World Cup squad comprised only six players with over 150 international caps as compared to eventual champions Belgium, which had 12 players with over 150 caps. The country expected the young squad to rewrite history after 43 years but that was not to be as after an impressive pool campaign, during which they drew 2-2 with Belgium, the home team lost 1-2 to Netherlands to crash out in the quarterfinals.
Nonetheless, the Indians did impress and finished sixth in the World Cup, their best finish in the mega-event after securing the fifth spot in the 1994 edition in Sydney. Going ahead in 2019, India’s most important task would be to qualify for the Olympics and with the country opting out of the Pro League, it remains to be seen what the Blue Sticks will do to book their ticket to Tokyo.
Harendra’s future as India coach is also under scanner. Meanwhile, the Indian women’s team had moments to celebrate in the year gone by after they reached the final of the Asian Games for the first time in 20 years. But the their dream of breaking a 36-year-old gold jinx remained unfulfilled after they lost 1-2 to Japan in the final in Jakarta.