India lost 1-7, the worst defeat at the Olympics for them, since the 1-6 scoreline against the same opposition at the 1976 Montreal Games.
But it’s still early days in Tokyo, with three more games left to play in the pool stage. Finishing in the top four to reach the quarterfinals remains very much within India’s reach. But the key to building up to that all-important quarterfinal will be to regroup and leave a forgettable game for the critics to gnaw on.
That, however, doesn’t mean the shortcomings should be veiled. What happened at the Oi Hockey Stadium on Sunday needs to be recognized. It must be accepted that such defeats shouldn’t happen on the biggest stage, especially when so much has been put into the sport to prepare for Tokyo 2020.
“It was pathetic play, with a poor plan,” former India striker and two time Olympian Jagbir Singh didn’t mince his words when contacted by Timesofindia.com.
The Hockey India think-tank chose a young striking line, with Mandeep Singh and Lalit Upadhyay the leaders of it. The midfield is in the able hands of skipper Manpreet Singh. The defence — comprising Harmanpreet Singh, Rupinder Pal Singh and Surender Kumar in the lead — has been tagged as this Indian team’s best part over the last couple of years in whatever competitions they could get to play in.
But mistakes on Sunday did happen from all sides.
The attackers are considered the first line of defence in modern hockey when the opponents have the ball, followed by the midfield and then comes the defence. But those first two lines of defence were absent in India’s play. And when the ball entered India’s ‘D’, the defenders were mostly non-existent. When they were there, they chose to defend mostly inside the striking circle, rather than on top of it.
“I can pick on the young players only if the seniors haven’t committed mistakes,” said Jagbir. “There were elementary mistakes in trapping and while stopping on penalty corners.
“Why should Sreejesh be held responsible? If you leave a goalkeeper to the mercy of any attacking line, he will have to take all the bullets without any shield.”
Jagbir felt he could see panic and anxiety in the Indian players, which he feels is unacceptable when playing at the Olympics — whoever the opposition might be.
“When are we shy to tackle or when do we throw our stick in a rush tackle? Why and when does this happen? These are all signs of panic, pressure,” the former Olympian reckoned.
“At the same time, this (pressure) is normal. I would not blame the boys for that. But even if this is normal, elementary errors are not acceptable at a big stage like the Olympics.”
Currently in the USA, former India coach Harendra Singh couldn’t watch the game and could only follow it on social media. He, however, advised against reading a whole lot into the scoreline.
“We shouldn’t read too much into this result, because the format of the competition is such,” Harendra, who earlier this year was appointed the coach of the US men’s team and has thus moved to America, told TimesofIndia.com.
“In this format, out of the six teams in your pool, you need to finish in the top four, which takes you through to the quarterfinals. The tournament starts from there. If a team wins the quarterfinal, it gets two shots at a medal,” said Harendra.
The 12 teams each in the men’s and women’s hockey competition at the Olympics are divided into two pools of six each. Top four from both pools progress to the quarterfinals.
The Indian men’s team next plays Spain on Tuesday (July 27) after a day’s rest, after back-to-back games against New Zealand and Australia. India defeated New Zealand 3-2 in a nervous finish that saw some heroic saves by Sreejesh.
“I would say as a player first and foremost, every match is important for me whether I play Australia or any weaker team,” said Jagbir. “But when I am coming to the Olympics, I am mentally prepared that I cannot loosen up at any stage.
“Why do you think I call it (defeat against Australia) pathetic play? Not because we let in seven goals, but because we couldn’t make it 7-4, 7-5 or 7-6. Even Australia were trailing against Japan in their first match in Tokyo, but they managed to turn it around (won 5-3 after trailing 2-3),” Jagbir added.
“That fighting spirit, fightback to win was slightly missing for me in India’s game.
“Winning and losing is part of the game. If we have lost today, we may win tomorrow, but only if we can put this loss behind us.” Jagbir further said.