The Men in Blue lost against New Zealand in the penalty shootout of the crossover.

India’s substandard displays in the Men’s Hockey World Cup continued against New Zealand. The Black Sticks didn’t let Graham Reid’s men get away unscratched. After holding Harmanpreet Singh and Co. to a draw in regulation time, the Kiwis thwarted India’s attempts to make it to the quarter-finals by beating them 5-4 in the ensuing penalty shootout.

The crossover loss to Greg Nichol’s team thus ended India’s push for a Hockey World Cup trophy. However, did India have the talent to go far in the tournament? Especially given that they potentially had to play the likes of Belgium and the Netherlands in the process? And is it time we start questioning whether Graham Reid has taken the team as far as he could?

Team of individuals

India started the tournament as one of the favourites to secure a podium finish at the World Cup. The team ranked sixth globally is full of profiles that, on their day, can make the hotshots of hockey question themselves. Captain Harmanpreet Singh, first-rusher Amit Rohidas, midfielder Hardik Singh, goalkeepers Krishna Bahadur Pathak and PR Sreejesh, and forward Mandeep Singh are some of the best in business.

BHUBANESWAR-ROURKELA, INDIA-JANNUARY 13. FIH Odisha Hockey Men’s World Cup 2023 Hardik during the FIH Hockey Men’s World Cup match between Spain and India at Birsa Munda International Hockey Stadium (Photo by WorldSportPics)

However, the team seemed too dependent on the geniuses of these individuals instead of performing as a collective unit. And when the individual flashes of brilliance failed to turn up, performances turned uninspiring. Hardik Singh was the engine of the team in attack. He picked the team up after England overran the Indian midfield in the first quarter of the second pool game.

The Indian No. 8 inspired the team to hold the ball and the team looked much better in transition with him on the pitch. However, when New Zealand did the same in the crossover, there was no Hardik Singh on the field. And so, Graham Reid’s side was dominated and kept away from the ball by New Zealand in the final 17 minutes of regulation time, conceding twice and throwing away the 3-1 lead. 

Amit Rohidas is arguably one of the best first-rushers in hockey. Manpreet Singh isn’t any bad either. Yet, New Zealand scored twice from only the two penalty corners they earned themselves in the game. How can a team concede through the only two penalty corners they gave away? This is while having two of the best first-rushers in the world. This question is set to linger in the minds of hockey fans for a long, long time.

Never looked confident

The team beat Spain 2-0 in their opening game of the Hockey World Cup. The game against the Spaniards was the only time India looked confident and dominant throughout the 60 minutes. 

England tested the Indian defence and the midfield quite frequently. The Pool D winners even came close to scoring multiple times. Zach Wallace’s team controlled the tempo in several phases. India suffered throughout and could have even lost the game on a different day. The game against Wales wasn’t a walk in the park either. England beat them 5-0 and Spain also scored five past them. India, just four, and the match ended 4-2. Not the best brag from title aspirants.

PR Sreejesh conceded twice in quick successions to give away India’s 2-0 lead. India missed the presence of a profile who could dictate play and help the Men in Blue retain possession. One could look at these performances and tell that any half-decent side could give the Indians a run for their money.

And it happened against New Zealand when the Indians looked like the shadow of the team that won the bronze medal at the Tokyo 2020.

Questions need to be asked

India during the FIH Hockey Men’s World Cup match between England and India at Birsa Munda International Hockey Stadium (Photo by WorldSportPics)

Medalling at the Olympics after a long gap should not be the reason to spare the players and the coach from criticism. The federation should ask questions and ask for the rationale behind some substandard decision-making.

Why were half-fit players put into the team? Why was game management so poor throughout the tournament? How did we let the opponents make a comeback after enjoying a two-goal advantage twice? Why is the top-scorer of international hockey in 2022 bowing out after having scored only once in the World Cup, that too when the opposition had no goalkeeper? 

Why was Raj Kumar Pal added from the reserves to the main squad when we had the option of bringing Jugraj Singh? What was the plan to compensate for the absence of Hardik Singh in the attacking half of the field? How can the Indian midfield look so much dependent on the availability of a single player?

Why was someone like Shamsher Singh asked to participate in the penalty shootout even after knowing his abysmal record? Why did the in-form forwards not shoot in the decider against New Zealand? And most importantly, have we already seen the peak of this team under Graham Reid?

What lies ahead?

India will play in the Asian Games 2022 and perhaps the Olympic Qualifiers. And, of course, there will be the Men’s Pro League games until the all-important Paris 2024. If the federation is to look beyond the former Kookaburras coach, Graham Reid – now is the time. The new appointment will have about 18 months to build his team and implement his fresh ideas. Maybe that is what this team needs, and appointing the coach early will give him a couple of tournaments to test the waters.

And if we are to continue with the Australian, he should be provided with all the resources he wants. Graham mentioned the team needs a mental coach. Also, this setback should not defer Hockey India president Dilip Tirkey from his plans of revamping the Hockey India League (HIL). If anything, the early exit should further fuel the process.

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