India’s campaign in its second consecutive hockey World Cup at home had a dream start when local boy Amit Rohidas scored a brilliant goal in front of a packed house and the host beat Spain 2-0 at the spectacular new Birsa Munda Stadium in hockey hub Rourkela. Ten days later, the euphoria burst like a bubble as sixth-ranked India crumbled under pressure against 11th-placed New Zealand and lost the cross-over match via penalty shoot-outs to leave the capacity crowd at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar disheartened. Now India, which finished inside the top-eight in the three previous World Cups it hosted, will play for the ninth to 16th places. The premature exit of India — which had 13 players from the Tokyo Olympics and 14 from the 2018 World Cup (where it reached the quarterfinals) — proved to be a shocker especially as the team entered the World Cup as an Olympic medallist for the first time in over four decades. The post-mortem has begun and questions are being asked about a few past performers being left out of the squad. Even though picking players was a prerogative of those who were tasked with it, some flaws were glaringly obvious.
Poor penalty corner conversion (five out of 26, primarily due to an off-colour drag-flicker and captain Harmanpreet Singh), a porous defensive structure, forwards’ below-par showing (four field goals in as many matches), losing ball possession in crucial moments and the overall lack of consistency in maintaining the intensity prevented the Graham Reid-coached side from achieving its potential. Nine goals from 94 circle entries and 49 shots on the goals was a telling statistic on India’s woes. Key midfielder Hardik Singh being ruled out due to an injury in the pool stage and ace goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh getting hurt during the shoot-out against New Zealand were big blows. Some experienced hands not getting a chance during the shoot-outs might have hampered India’s prospects too. India needs to do a reality check and address the issues quickly ahead of the Asian Games, which is an Olympic qualifying event, this year and the Paris Olympics in 2024. Even though India’s 48-year-old wait for a World Cup medal has become longer, Hockey India president and former India captain Dilip Tirkey, who has underlined the areas of concern, needs to take corrective steps to put the team back on track. Executing plans such as reviving the Hockey India League to give quality exposure to young Indian players and identifying a big pool of drag-flickers will contribute in lifting the standard of hockey.