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India in Hockey at Commonwealth Games 2022 Men and Women teams win medals Australia England

A year since the Indian hockey teams regained space in the national consciousness with exceptional performances at the Tokyo Olympics, the Birmingham Commonwealth Games (CWG) have served a reminder that sports isn’t a mathematical equation with a single definite solution. But, an unsure science with every permutation and process throwing up new results.

Also Read: India wins silver in men’s hockey, loses 0-7 to Australia in final at Commonwealth Games 2022

In terms of final standings, both the men and women went one better on their Olympic finishes – the women winning bronze for their first CWG medal in 16 years and the men returning with a third silver from the competition in four editions. The results were as expected, the performances not so much.

The Aussie Dominance

The biggest elephant in the room, of course, remains Australia. The leader at CWG over years by a fair margin is also the most dominant side in hockey since being included in 1998. While the women have won four of the seven editions so far, the men have swept past opposition all seven times. That’s a mammoth 24-year reign that shows no signs of letting up. The Australians were also the unsurmountable obstacle for both Indian teams this time around, the women in the semifinals and the men in the final.

Tracking the Journey

The similarities in the Indian men’s and women’s teams journey over the past year are several: losing key members to retirement or injuries, finishing third in the Asia Cups with junior players, finishing third in the FIH Pro League and ending in fourth place at

the Junior World Cups. They have also lost a large part of the support staff that worked with the teams up to and at the Olympics although the chief coaches – Graham Reid for men and Janneke Schopman for women – ensured there was a welcome continuity at the top. Not surprisingly, the performance and progress have followed a similar process and so have the challenges.

Marijne Opines

“For me, the good thing is that the girls are getting dominant against other teams. They are taking charge and going on the attack, which is very good,” former coach Sjoerd Marijne said. Marijne, who was in charge of the team at Tokyo, has not stopped following the team’s fortunes since then and has been consistently supportive of their performances.

Road to Semifinals

At Birmingham, the Indian women were expected to make the semifinals and they duly did but not without hiccups. The start wasn’t auspicious, Navjot Kaur tested Covid-19 positive and was forced to fly back.

The opening games against Ghana and Wales were comfortable but the team appeared disjointed and without a plan, relying more on their superior skills. Ironically, the one game India lost in the group stage – to host England – was also its best performance in terms of executing a game plan and playing as a unit.

Also Read: Indian women’s hockey, Commonwealth Games, 20 years ago: The gold that paved the path  

It took a special effort from Lalremsiami to get past Canada and ensure a semifinal spot but it was also indicative of how the team could collectively switch off in crunch moments that may come back to haunt it later. Against stronger teams, it would be a disaster, something India experienced at the World Cup two weeks before the CWG, finishing ninth. The inability to score after all the hard work in the middle was a concern while the biggest let-down was India’s penalty corner conversion with Gurjit Kaur seemingly unable to find a way to score despite a truckload of PCs created.

The Indian women’s team suffered a controversial loss against Australia in the Commonwealth Games 2022.

The Indian women’s team suffered a controversial loss against Australia in the Commonwealth Games 2022.
| Photo Credit: Getty Images

“I think it is not fair to blame Gurjit only. It is getting more and more difficult to score from penalty corners for all teams, including The Netherlands who have always been very good in it, not just India. The runners are getting better, both the first and second runners and with the goalkeeper covering one angle and runners the other, it leaves hardly any space to take the shot without getting dangerous,” Marijne countered.

The Australian hurdle, which India famously surmounted in Tokyo, saw its fair share of controversy before India blanked out in the shoot-out but to be fair, India’s tenaciousness could only take it so far against a side that was clearly the better one on the day. It appeared to be another case of so-near-yet-so-far when New Zealand struck 18 seconds from time but there was no denying goalkeeper-captain Savita Punia this time. The team, despite the absence of Rani Rampal seems to be on the right track en route to its next big target – the Asian Games next year – and there is no denying the possibility that the talismanic former captain won’t be back.

Men’s journey to podium

For the men, it wasn’t such a roller-coaster ride till the very end. Their path was much smoother, the only hurdle being a draw against England in the group stage after being 4-1 up, conceding three goals in the last 15 minutes. It was also one game that saw the Indians at their worst, both in terms of performance and discipline. The team, for once, seemed to have collectively lost it in the mind on the field.

While the English were equally guilty – the England men’s team, in fact, was the worst offender this edition with 15 cards earned by 10 different players, more than any other side – it was a throwback to the Indian sides, more than a decade ago and not a good one. Fortunately, the team seemed to have learnt its lesson and went back to focus on its game instead.

The semifinal against South Africa was a tricky affair and proved why playing a lower-ranked side that depends on obdurate, disciplined defence and quick sneaks into counter-attacks can be so dangerous. It was not the best from India but it was a far better show in keeping frustrations in check to enter the final and ensuring a medal after missing out on the podium four years ago.

India’s hockey performance in Commonwealth Games

India’s hockey performance in Commonwealth Games

The final, of course, was a disaster. The players have admitted being unable to play their own game and falling into the Australian trap, being hurt at losing the gold and committing mistakes they shouldn’t have. The 7-0 scoreline might suggest Indian men’s hockey remains stuck in time, rekindling the nightmare of the 8-0 loss in 2010. But it’s as much a testament to the Australian domination as to India’s inability to break the mental block in big tournaments.

The Australian Conundrum

As per official records, the closest India has come to defeating Australia in a major tournament – barring test matches or the Pro League – was at the Champions Trophy in 2018 when Australia won on penalties. One would have to go back to 2014 Azlan Shah

Cup to find a favourable result for India and that has traditionally been a season-opening tournament for most sides to test new faces. The last time they met in a major event was Tokyo 2021, with India losing 1-7.

Dissecting what went wrong isn’t possible simply because India would have had to play to a plan to fault it. It was classic Australian hockey – fast, open, one-touch, ruthless. They went for the jugular early and never took the feet off the pedal. Opening up space in the

midfield and defence at will, wrong-footing the defenders, shaking off marksmen with a twist and turn, the waves never stopped coming. For the younger players in the Indian side, it was a harsh lesson in realising that world domination was a long way off.

Against any other team, however, the Indians have proven to be more than a match, especially in fitness. Germany, Netherlands, Argentina, New Zealand and even Belgium on occasions have struggled to keep pace despite their naturally superior physical frame and height. The team

has managed to not sit back on its laurels post-Olympics and the advantage of a large group of probables training together for years has been visible in the Pro League with newer faces like Abhishek, Jugraj Singh, Pawan Rajbhar, Yashdeep Siwach and Rajkumar Pal showing promising results.

Now, if only they could find a way to break the Australian jinx.

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