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Monday, December 4, 2023

Asian Games: Time for Indian men’s hockey team to justify favourites tag

As expected, India’s men’s hockey team won all their group-stage matches at the Hangzhou Asian Games. As expected, they scored plenty of goals, 58 to be exact. As expected, they barely conceded any – five in five matches. As expected, they topped their group and made it to the semi-finals.

There are a few flaws you can find in the team’s performance so far, along with plenty of positives. The scoring pattern is one such positive: India had 14 goal scorers in the group stage, with Harmanpreet Singh, Mandeep Singh and Varun Kumar scoring eight goals each.

As they head into the knockout stages, though, it’s time for a reality check. India have had a tendency of late to blow away the competition in the early rounds but struggle in the knockouts.

It was a similar story at the 2018 Asian Games where they were defending champions, much better on paper than every other country in the field and were expected to win the gold. They started in form, scoring 76 goals in five matches and conceding only three. Then, when it mattered the most, they fumbled.

They lost the semi-final against Malaysia in a penalty shootout, lost out on the Olympic qualification (they had to win it through the Olympic qualifiers tournament) and eventually won the bronze.

At this year’s World Cup, too, they crumbled under pressure. They were tipped to make the semi-finals, given their recent international performances, especially in the FIH Pro Leagues, and the quality of players in the squad. The failure to even qualify for the quarterfinals eventually resulted in the dismissal of head coach Graham Reid.

India were not the outright favourites for gold at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, but the way they capitulated in the final – a 0-7 loss – despite having a team that could’ve pushed Australia to the brink, was yet another indication that if things start to go wrong, the team can falter.

India won bronze at the Tokyo Olympics, but that was an outlier performance – there was evidence even before that of the team not handling pressure well – and might even have worked against them subsequently, raising expectations that have not been met.

Before leaving for Hangzhou, head coach Craig Fulton spoke about the pressure. “That is what expectation is. When you expect something from yourself before you have done it, then you put pressure. How do we deal with it? With our game plan and our structure, how long can we stick to it? That’s how we deal with pressure.”

Fulton brought up the Asian Champion Trophy final in Chennai, when they were 1-3 down at halftime against Malaysia but turned it around to win the title. “We showed in the ACT final that we can bounce back from situations when it’s not going our way. I’m also happy that we got to see another side of ourselves, where the players needed to move away from Plan A. It was also good for us to be put in that situation before the Asian Games. The boys responded well because that was a final and at home, so we dealt with it.”

But Fulton and his players will know that the Asian Champions Trophy is not the Asian Games, which is a qualification route for the Olympics. There’s a lot more at stake in Hangzhou, where a failure would amount to vehement criticism.

On paper, India will be favourites against South Korea in the semi-finals. India are ranked third in the world, South Korea 11th. At the Asian Champions Trophy, India defeated them 3-2 but the Koreans made it difficult for them. In the third and fourth quarters, South Korea pushed India all the way and lost narrowly.

It can get tricky for India if they don’t convert their chances early on. South Korea’s Jang Jong-Hyun is a big threat with penalty corners, he has already scored 17 goals in the tournament and is in sublime form.

If India make the mistake of giving him multiple opportunities to score, he can turn the match around with his conversions. India’s defence and goalkeepers did not face much competition in the group stage, but it will not be the same in the semifinal. The real competition begins now. Even a silver for India will be an underachievement for this team.

Their next two matches need to follow the pattern of their group stage outings, in terms of domination. The scorelines might not be huge, but the results and the on-pitch play need to do justice to their tag of being the favourites.

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