A year of development for Indian hockey (IANS Special: 2014 in Retrospect)

New Delhi, Dec 26 (IANS) Indian men’s hockey took giant strides towards reclaiming its long-lost numero uno position with an Asian Games gold, after a 16-year drought, and several memorable victories, but the momentum was marred by an untimely and poorly handled resignation of chief coach Terry Walsh.

There was a gloomy start to the year due to the men’s junior team’s poor World Cup performance, in December 2013, finishing sixth in the eight-nation Hockey World League (HWL) Final held here.
The players visibly looked out of sorts in the first competition under coach Walsh and it was apparent they would take time to settle down under the Australian. The only positive point in the tournament was a 5-4 victory over a depleted German team.
Most of the players plied their trade in the Hockey India League (HIL), which was eventually won by Sardar Singh-led Delhi Waveriders. Though Punjab Warriors impressed most with an attractive attacking play, the Delhi team pipped them via penalty shoot-out in the summit clash. For Delhi, drag-flicker Rupinderpal Singh and young striker Akashdeep Singh played crucial roles.
The Indian team later went to the Netherlands for a warm-up tour ahead of the World Cup. They floundered in most of the matches against a developmental Dutch side, which was enough to demoralise the team.
Walsh worked intensely on the fitness of the players and also sharpened their basic skills going into the World Cup, where they showed enough signs of improvement.
However, results continued to elude the team. They suffered losses due to last-gasp goals in the matches against Belgium and England. A timid draw against Spain and a 0-4 drubbing against the eventual champions Australia disappointed everyone. However, they beat South Korea 3-0 to finish ninth.
With their capability in question, the team went to the Commonwealth Games with Walsh proclaiming “improvement” as his only aim. Their most impressive show came against New Zealand in the semifinal. Despite Sardar sitting out of the match, the young team came from two goals behind to stun the Black Sticks to enter the final. Australia put up another creditable show to beat India in the two teams’ second consecutive CWG summit clash.
Neil Hawgood-coached women’s team finished fifth in the tournament. The Ritu Rani-led team improved under the Australian’s guidance but couldn’t bridge the gap between the top teams, which resulted in a mutual separation with Hawgood at the year-end.
Further disappointments were in store for Indian hockey as no player was selected for the Arjuna Award, prompting a prolonged war of words between Hockey India (HI) president Narinder Batra and the Sports Authority of India (SAI).
However, the Indian men’s team continued its upward journey and Walsh’s firm focus on fitness and ball control started to bring the desired results.
They got a long-awaited result at the Asian Games in Incheon, withstanding the pressure exerted by hosts South Korea in the semifinal before quelling Pakistan’s challenge in the final to bag the first Asiad gold since 1996.
The success also made them the first team to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. The Indian women’s team also featured on the podium, finishing third.
Building on the Incheon success, the team prevailed 3-1 over a weakened Australia in a rare series triumph Down Under. After being thrashed severely in the first match, the team turned the tables, which also gave a glimpse of their mental resoluteness. Goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh’s improvement and consistency helped India overcome many challenges, making him the most stand-out player of the season.
Meanwhile, the Indian Under-21 team also successfully defended the Sultan of Johor Cup title which also made the year more special and memorable for hockey fans.
But the mood was soured by the resignation of Walsh, who demanded an improved contract that would give him better functional autonomy in team’s decision-making, most notably in selecting the players.
Despite valiant efforts by Sports Minister Sarabananda Sonowal and the SAI, Walsh didn’t agree to continue. He was also not happy with Batra rekindling his alleged financial irregularities during his tenure with US Hockey. Thus departed India’s fourth foreign coach.
The Indian team did try to get over from the controversy but their Champions Trophy performance was inconsistent. They lost to Germany and Argentina but won against the Dutch after 18 years. In the quarterfinals, the ninth-ranked team defeated World No.4 Belgium. But they conceded a late goal against traditional rivals Pakistan in the semifinal to finish fourth in the tournament.
Now, both the men’s and women’s teams would be seeking to maintain the upward trend under the yet-to-be-named new coach.
(Abhishek Purohit can be contacted at [email protected])