Hockey World Cup 2023: Over-reliance on Harmanpreet, not taking chances, how India's campaign collapsed

India were eliminated from Hockey World Cup 2023 trophy race after losing to New Zealand in crossovers. Image: Hockey India

Bhubaneswar: On 22 January 2023, a week before the World Cup final will be played in Bhubaneswar, India crashed out of the 15th edition of the Men’s Hockey World Cup in the crossovers round. Graham Reid’s men fell short to the Vantage Black Sticks from New Zealand in a shootout after seeing out a 3-3 draw in regulation time.

While the beautiful lights at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar and the grandeur of the hockey village at the Birsa Munda Hockey Stadium in Rourkela will be discussed for ages, fans and stakeholders of the Indian men’s hockey team will want to erase the memories of the performances on the turf. After the highs of Tokyo, a home World Cup was a blessing. The team had something big to look forward, to continue their streak of rewriting history, but the Harmanpreet Singh-led team will look back with very few positives this time around.

The tournament started with a 2-0 win against Spain in the pool stage, but it overshadowed a lot of India’s issues that would later be exposed against New Zealand in the crossovers. Coach Graham Reid pointed out two key phases of the game where the team fell short.

“Obviously, our penalty corner conversion this tournament has been poor. We also had a lot of circle penetrations but could not convert these chances”, he said in the press conference after last night’s match.

When the squad was announced, fans and pundits of the game expressed concerns over India’s drag-flicking options. The over-reliance on Harmanpreet Singh was quite evident. Defenders Amit Rohidas, Varun Kumar and Jugraj Singh are impressive drag-flickers but they’d not been given enough chances to perfect their art. When Harmanpreet was on the field, one could easily bet that he was the one taking charge of the short corner. What India needed was a Jeremy Hayward to step up in the absence of their Blake Govers, and that did not happen.

In Tokyo, the team converted 10 out of 31 penalty corner opportunities. At this World Cup, it was 4 out of 27. Legendary Dutch drag-flicker Floris Jan Bovelander mentioned earlier this tournament that a 1 in 4 conversion rate is what you should aim for. 1 in 3 is even better he said. India exited the tournament with a 14.81% conversion rate, something for coach Graham Reid to think about.

One of India’s major concerns throughout the tournament was the underwhelming performance of the two-time FIH men’s player of the year and captain of the team – Harmanpreet Singh. The ace goal-scorer, who was captaining the side in a major tournament for the first time, looked like a shadow of his own self. His only goal at the tournament came against debutants Wales who didn’t have a goalkeeper on the field at that time. Harmanpreet’s frustration was clearly visible when he attempted a ‘hit’ instead of his signature drag-flick on India’s final penalty corner during the game last night. That moment summed up his tournament.

An average Indian hockey fan will ponder over the question of ‘what next?’ for the team. Coach Graham Reid answered the question by saying, “we will focus on the next two games in the tournament, but end of the day, you have to keep practicing. We need to go back to the drawing board, but it is all about the execution. As far as the drills, practice and training methods are considered, we do everything that all the top teams do. Mentally, we need to improve. That is something we will have to look at, to get a mental coach. It is an important part of our future. We need to try something different perhaps.”

The wait for a World Cup medal will have to continue for a few more years. Goalkeeper PR Sreejesh who brought life back to the crowd after making two huge saves in the shootout last night posted a photo on his social media, captioned – “End of a dream”. This exit will sting for a bit, considering the things at stake during this World Cup, but a reality check was required.

There will be changes and much-needed ones. A better domestic structure, a re-introduction of the Hockey India League, a mental coach, and drag-flicking camps across the country were just some of the suggestions given by fans leaving the stadium after the disappointing loss.

India will now play Japan in the 9-12th classification round on 26 January in Rourkela. While it’s not the way the country would have liked to celebrate a national holiday, it is a game that will affect the FIH rankings and play a role in the preparations for the Asian Games later this year.

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