By Ajeyo Basu
New Delhi: Familiar failures in major tournaments after promising build-ups and musical chair-like rotation of coaches. These were the major highlights of Indian hockey in 2018.
The Indian team had started the year in rousing fashion, winning a four-nation tournament in New Zealand which also included Japan and the formidable Belgium.
The Men in Blue defeated New Zealand in the group stages before beating Belgium via a penalty shoot-out in the final.
That was the only bit of success for Indian hockey in 2018.
India had started the Commonwealth Games on a promising note, topping Pool B by winning three of their four first round matches. One match had ended in an exciting 2-2 stalemate with arch-rivals Pakistan.
The high point of India’s group stage performance was a hard-fought 4-3 victory over European powerhouse England in the last match. But the Indians crashed out after a 2-3 loss to eventual runners-up New Zealand in the semi-finals.
That prompted the powers that be of Indian hockey to sack coach Sjoerd Marijne and put Harendra Singh in the hot seat.
Like countless coaches before him, Harendra was also destined to show early promise before running into trouble with the administrators of the game.
The Asian Games was also off to a good start with India taking the top spot in a relatively easy Pool B which had a below-par South Korea as the only team remotely close to strong opposition.
The eight-time Olympic champions were given a tough time in the semi-finals by an extremely impressive China before scraping through with a 1-0 win.
But the real shocker came in the final where the former kings of the game were stunned 1-2 by a much improved Japan.
The build-up to the men’s World Cup at home saw a lot of hype and its fair share of controversies with senior players like Sardar Singh and Rupinderpal Singh being overlooked.
Despite lacking players with too much international experience — with a few exceptions — the Indian team coped well with the pressure of playing a World Cup in front of massive home crowds.
The young guns started in explosive fashion, demolishing South Africa in a comprehensive 5-0 thrashing in their campaign opener.
They were even more impressive in their second group match, holding eventual champions Belgium to an exciting 2-2 draw before a comfortable 5-1 victory over minnows Canada saw them achieve direct qualification to the quarter-finals without going through the anxiety of the crossovers.
Up against the formidable Netherlands in the quarter-finals, the Indians fought bitterly till the very end before narrowly going down 1-2.
The match saw a fair bit of controversy as Harendra blamed poor umpiring for his team’s defeat. His outburst at the post-match media conference did not go down well with the International Hockey Federation (FIH).
The FIH’s technical delegate Christian Deckenbrock termed the Indian coach’s statements as “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” while the world body’s president Narinder Batra also expressed his displeasure with Harendra.
Harendra also received an official reprimand from the FIH and the game’s world governing body further stated that it will be recorded and can be taken into account if he breaches the FIH’s code of conduct in future.
It was a creditable performance given the fact that the current Indian team is somewhat limited technically and tactically when compared to the world’s top hockey teams.
But sadly for Harendra, the World Cup exit cost him his job as Hockey India decided to continue its inexplicable policy of playing musical chairs with coaches.
Harendra’s exit before he could properly implement his ideas on a young team continues a long trend of coaches being shown the door often without having the chance to prove themselves.
The next incumbent will probably be a foreigner with Hockey India already expressing its intent of importing yet another coach from overseas.
However, the positive aspect is that the current bunch of players have the qualities to become world beaters if given proper guidance.
Hockey India must be careful with whatever decision it takes from here. Yet another wrong move may once again turn the clock back.