On March 30, the curtains came down on the 28th edition of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, 2019. The next day, headlines read ‘India go down fighting in a tense final’. Different year, different team, same result, same story! The Indian hockey team had buckled under pressure, yet again. This was after new team management had taken charge. This was after infusion of ‘fresh legs’ on the turf. For observers of Indian hockey, it was as if 2018 had never ended.
Throughout 2018, India participated in prestigious competitions without significant results. They were runners-up in a four-nation tournament in New Zealand and the Champions Trophy in the Netherlands. The Commonwealth and Asian Games saw them finish 4th and 3rd respectively. But the one that hurt the most was the quarter-final exit in the World Cup held in Odisha, India, in December. It was a year that had to be quickly forgotten.
The six-nation Sultan Azlan Shah Cup was supposed to be the soothing balm for last year’s wounds. For starters, India entered the competition as the highest-ranked team. On account of the high-profile Men’s FIH Pro League, champion teams including Argentina, Australia and England were not participating. India was the clear favourite to win the title.
The summit clash saw World no. 5 and five-time winner, India, pitted against the 17th ranked South Koreans. It was supposed to be a stroll in the park. And then, the choke! South Korea played the waiting game and stonewalled the Indian attack. Sample this; 33 circle entries with 11 shots on goal, 6 clear chances, 5 penalty corners; all adding up to just one goal in regular time. It was the all-too-familiar case of India getting frustrated and tired. The result? South Korea netted the equaliser in the last quarter, courtesy a defensive error. It was a collective brain freeze; under pressure!
In the shoot-out, India seemed to have gone cold and eventually went down 4-2.
India’s Chief Coach for the tournament and High-Performance Director, David John, aptly summarised it when he said, “Unfortunately it’s become a habit (losing finals or crucial games).” It was again a case of too near, yet too far!
It’s not as if there were no bright spots in the tournament. India had fielded a young and fit, albeit inexperienced squad. This was because most of the regular players were either injured or in a post-injury rehabilitation program. This gave opportunities to many youngsters. It proved to be a blessing in disguise as they thrashed one team after another in the league stages. Defender Surender Kumar complemented the prolific goal-poacher Mandeep Singh and the more-than-competent Vivek Sagar Prasad.