Indian Media Negativity Surrounds Women's World Cup Hockey Finals
Team India has matured and grown but has been under enormous pressure
"Playing sport is not what you are, but what you do. Don't be selfish by going for glory. Help your mates through difficulties, turn the ball over to the player better- placed than you to shoot for goal," said coach Kabir Khan to his players before the World Cup finals in the film Chak De India. The ragtag team transformed and won the World Cup. Do for you, die for you, mates!
For things to happen, one must imagine them first. But wait, I'm not just making this all up. I've watched a lot of hockey. This approach of helping mates is something Europeans have a cultural mastery over. Many goals scored by European teams in the Women's Hockey World Cup were one-touch team goals. The ball goes to player A, then to player B, then to player C, and finally, player D slides it into the goal.
As for Team India, it actually performed well. Though many in India believe the team disappointed, arguing that a place in the semi- finals was within grasp. This is plain wrong.
The Indian women's team has a coach who, being a woman, understands how the players think. She has empathy. Janneke Schopman also is a former Dutch player with five Olympics and World Cup medals, including two gold medals. She knows how to control a game, and has turned a defensively strong team into one that can attack with speed, in the unselfish way of European teams.
Yet, there are issues beyond Schopman's handling capacity. Perhaps anxiety about losing made the players avoid taking authoritative decisions. This risk-free approach created a logjam. Fear of descent halted the team's climb.
In a culture of extreme scrutiny, Indian players feel great pressure to win. For a coach hugging a player missing an open chance (Schopman, hugging Sharmila Devi after she missed scoring against England) is good, but a coach can only do that much. To express ourselves coherently in sport, we must remain in the present.
For long periods in India's matches, the players seemed to be thinking about the outcome rather than decisions they needed to make in the present. Greatness is a monkish thing, erasing thoughts of the outcome. We must ascend into the present and meditate in it before the game begins, shutting out everything else.
The players were already thinking that they had to win the game, whatever it took. How does the coach deal with this? Meditation and Yoga might help keep their minds calm and uncluttered.
Recall the prescient Schopman's caution before the World Cup, "consistency is a big point of attention. If we can play consistently well, top-4, and who knows a podium in the World Cup is a possibility. At the same time if we don't perform we can miss the quarterfinals."
Gloomy and preachy commentary after matches put pressure on a team that should have been left alone. India has matured and grown, but that's not enough. To earn a medal one has to play at a high level throughout the game. Errors are small things with big costs. Fatigue might have been a factor in halting India's progress beyond the league stage.
A third place finish in the Pro League, 2021- 2022 season, gave an ill-informed public false hope of earning a medal in the World Cup. It's the old debate between process and outcome. European teams don't play out of fear of losing. In the Pro League India played at full strength, barely fielding its second goalkeeper, let alone others from the core group of 33.
The Germans fielded their under- 21 team against India, and the Dutch fielded a team with only 5.4 average international caps to India's 93. Europeans use elite events, other than the Olympics and World Cup, to test developmental teams against the best of the rest. India didn't do that in the Pro League, and perhaps peaked too early.
Throwing junior teams against senior teams is likely a psychological ploy, or cultural disdain. India's failings are steeped in fear. Game time at elite levels is more important than technical and tactical preparation.
Consider that the Indian team has played far less at the elite level than the eight teams that advanced to the quarter- finals. Within Asia, too, India has played fewer matches against elite teams than China, Korea, or Japan. For example, China has played 34 matches against the Netherlands, India only 11.
Statistically, more game time at the elite level leads to greater success. Inexperience costs, as Canada, playing their first World Cup in 28 years, showed. In the classification match against a more experienced India on July 11 Canada held a 1- 0 lead until the 58th minute and a 2- 0 lead in the shootout, but lost the shootout 2- 3 after 14 attempts by both teams. Against Korea for the 13th- 16th place Canada conceded a late goal and lost another shootout. Yet, morally, Canada won the match against India by almost winning. Canada "had no fear facing a team that was just fourth at the Olympics and are No. 9," head coach Rob Short said.
After an emotionally draining loss to Spain in a crossover match a day earlier India played Canada with clear and strong minds. This is real progress, beyond the technical and tactical improvement India has undoubtedly made. Credit goes to Schopman. India had benefited from playing the Pro League, but will start all over again in the Nations Cup. Turning down the invitation to play the inaugural Pro League in 2019 might have cost India in this World Cup.
India converted five of 46 penalty corners, having to rely on Monika Malik after Gurjit Kaur and Deep Grace Ekka repeatedly failed to score. Kaur is one of the best in the world, but it's not up to her alone. For a shot to hit goal, the injection and trap need to be good; a team effort is needed. Sport is about adjustments, the coaching staff will surely do that before the Commonwealth Games.
The Indian media continues its negative reportage placing outcome before process. "A disappointing ninth," said The Times of India and Firstpost.com. "Appalling penalty corner conversions," and "truly disappointing," said Hockey Passion. "Underwhelming," said Sportskeeda. These inquests into the World Cup performance were severe but expected. This is what happens in India after every elite event.
Ninth-ranked India stood ninth, validating its ranking. The fourth-place finish in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is not from where further progress should be assessed. India created a small history at Tokyo after an unexpected victory over Australia in the quarter finals. Ireland achieved similar success in the 2018 World Cup, earning a silver medal. Ireland stood 11th in this World Cup. Unexpected success is hard to replicate without consistent performances.
Criticism was misplaced as the team grew into the tournament. In the game against New Zealand the fearless Indians jostled with their bigger opponents, trading two yellow cards and four green cards. In closing the gap with New Zealand India might have crossed a psychological threshold.
Skill sets are lonely and must work in tandem with power and strength. In high resolution images we observed a determined Vandana Katariya in a state of fiery creativity, willing to die to live. For me this approach is liberating and India's true hockey revolution.
The team knew that, as much as qualifying for the crossover game against Spain, it had also played very well against New Zealand. There were tears in disappointment, the relief at staying alive for the crossover matches was only secondary. Even though India lost the crossover game to Spain, it quickly recovered, ending the World Cup with two victories.
Thus, smack away the fear and brooding, and celebrate. Chak De India!
J.N.Misra is a former ambassador, currently an adjunct professor and distinguished fellow in O.P. Jindal Global University. He has been an advisor to the government of Odisha on sports, and serves as the Vice President of Jawaharlal Nehru Hockey Tournament Society.