If anything, the just-concluded men’s Hockey World Cup was an eye-opener in more ways than one. For all their hopes and aspirations, India would have realised where they stand in the pecking order and how much more they need to improve to compete with the best.
At the same time, Australia, winners after a 24-year break by dethroning Germany, set new benchmarks in modern hockey.
For Australia, it must have been particularly satisfying to win the top prize following their success at home in the 2009 Champions Trophy. Their coach, Ric Charlesworth now holds a unique record of winning the World Cup as a player (he was the captain of the 1986 Cup squad) and coach in which role he notched a fabulous double.
Under Charlesworth, the Aussie women’s team had won the World Cup (1994, ‘98) and the Olympics (1996, 2000).
Charlesworth, who is an avid Shakespeare fan, got his tactics right in the final with the Aussies excelling in the midfield where the battle was won and lost. Not allowing Germans much room to build up attacks, the Aussies played a brilliant up-and-down game, with their fitness helping them to sustain a hectic pace.
Ultimately, it was more to do with strategy than individual flair that proved decisive and surely, other teams, not the least India, have plenty of catching up to do.
After all, Australia and Germany are not known to sit on their laurels and by the time 2012 Olympics begin, rest assured, the two teams would have something different and better up their sleeves.
Barring Korea, who were a trifle unlucky to miss out on the semifinals, the other two Asian teams, India and Pakistan, huffed and puffed with their outdated style of play. If Pakistan were a team divided and finished last, then India appeared clueless in most matches and it will take a lot to convince the discerning that the hosts indeed have improved.
Moving up from the 9-12 bracket to the eighth place finish is numerically an improvement, but it does not necessarily reflect progress. Poor preparations and avoidable controversies certainly affected India’s build-up for the World Cup, but that has always been the case with Indian hockey prior to every major competition. So much so, it has become some sort of a wretched tradition!
Before one talks about tactics and technique, India’s fundamental issue was about their players being match fit. At the highest level, fitness is the foundation and the rest flows from there. The Australia-Germany final emphasised this point. Even the Netherlands flagged in the semifinals against the Aussies, as did England facing Germany in the other knockout game.
For the Dutch, the bronze medal was small consolation considering the abundant talent they had with the likes of Teun de Nooijer and goalkeeper Guus Vogels leading the pack. In contrast, England reached a plateau and could barely perform against Germany.
In the current scenario, it will take a couple of generations for India to entertain realistic hopes of getting among the top four, much less win the gold medal at the Olympics or the World Cup. The best way out of the mess that Indian hockey is in would be to look at talent at the sub-junior level and chart out an eight-year programme, leading up to the 2016 Olympics. It is pointless to talk about the current crop of players in the 25-30 age group.
Perhaps, India could take a leaf out of Germany who fielded a young side with an eye on the 2012 London Olympics. That they made it to the final was a bonus, but the young players in the team would have gained immensely by the experience and reached their peak two years from now.
In conclusion, the tournament was an eye-opener also for the FIH which needlessly mucked around with Indian hockey on the pretext of helping it restore to its “old glory”. FIH would have gawked at the kind of funding available in India. In the end, the economics outweighed all other considerations and for sure, the bosses will be keeping a sharp eye on India, if only for this.