2023 Men's FIH Hockey World Cup | Team India would be ruthless in high-pressure games, says coach BJ Kariappa
There is something about hockey World Cups, Team India has somehow just found ways to throw away all their hard work into the gutter. Even though we are still most successful side in the Olympics with eight golds, one silver, and three bronzes, but that has not culminated in World Cup domination.
The legendary teams of the 70s did bring podium finishes on the trot, in the first three editions, including the gold in 1975, but that's it. The indigenous medal factory stopped its production right there. For those who follow Indian hockey closely, or did in the past, know well that we were, and are still capable of much better. After the 1994 Sydney edition, the previous edition in Bhubaneswar was the first time that India reached the knockout stages; and unfortunately lost against the Netherlands 1-2 despite scoring first in the match.
It was the case of so close, yet so far. In the 12th minute, Akashdeep Singh scored on a rebound after Harmanpreet missed a penalty corner. But soon after in the 15th minute, Thierry Brinkman silenced the Indian crowds with a stunning comeback goal, which changed the course of the match. Later, in the 50th minute, Mink van der Weerden scored the winner, dashing India's hopes of making it to the semis.
The team despite playing well under coach Harendra Singh failed to live up to the expectations, while their jinx at the World Cups continued. But if coach BJ Kariappa is to be believed, who works closely with this current bunch of players, there is no reason why Harmanpreet Singh and Co. can't achieve the unthinkable. Moreover, 13 players have an Olympics bronze medal under their cap, while the others have invaluable experience over the last two years.
"There is nothing that can actually explain India's World Cup performance over the years. But it is all in the past now and we have done well if every tournament after the last edition. So last Olympics, we finished on the podium and that will be the motivational factor; even the players have the eagerness to win the matches," Kariappa told SportsCafe.
He even pointed out how, over the years each player has grown in skill and confidence, which brings a lot of stability to the team, which was perhaps missing earlier, or more so in the last World Cup. "The maturity level of the players is there to see for everyone. Look at skipper Harman especially, so in the last World Cup he wasn't as mature as he is now, but times have changed and he has become very consistent. Likewise, other players have improved leaps and bounds too. So we can pin hopes on this team."
But the question still persists, if India really has it in them to lift the trophy? Off late, we have struggled against the Australians, so much so, that India has registered only one win in 14-15 matches. And even though both teams are in different groups, they could face off either in cross-overs or playoffs, given both reach that far. India fares poorly even in head-to-head contests, winning only 23 while losing over 90.
"It would only be fair to say that skills-wise match them well. Talking about just the recent test series, where we lost 4-1, one of the factors was that we were trying out a few combinations. The way I look at it is, there was some confusion between the players. When you have 18 players in the squad and you're trying to get you're best 11 on the park, that could happen. That should not happen at the World Cup since the squad is already picked," he added.
In modern hockey, drag flicking is one skill that is perhaps the most important. Teams playing fast-paced hockey rely heavily on their defenders, who also specialise as drag flickers, to literally churn out the goals. Some of the best in the world, Australia's Blake Govers, Belgium's Alexander Hendrickx, and Argentina's Gonzalo Peillat score in tonnes for the countries. That brings us to the question, is India equipped enough?
The answer in the eyes of Kariappa is a, yes. "Harmanpreet is one of the best in the world. Even Varun has done tremendously well in the past. Then there is Amit Rohidas too. It's great that we have three world-class flickers now, which wasn't the case earlier when Harman was taking the bulk of the PCs. So it would be interesting to see how India fares in PCs.
"I think this is a very competent unit overall. You can expect great things from them. Another thing about this team is they don't take the pressure and are ruthless in do-or-die matches. That was evident with the way they played in the Olympics too. So once we reach playoffs, we can do it," Kariappa signed off.