The bronze medal against the Dutch in the Men’s Hero Hockey World League 2015 was a testament to the improvement made by the Indian hockey contingent and one that augured well for the preparations to the Olympic that was to follow. The men’s, women’s and juniors team all won trophies with the Indian eves earning their first Olympics call-up after 36 years and later also lifting the ACT Trophy. Certainly, 2016 would be considered as a great year in the annals of India’s illustrious hockey history, even more so for the last decade, as India recorded one fascinating chapter after another to finish the year on a high.
Hockey India League – The Indian festival of hockey
Beginning every January and featuring the who’s who of hockey from across the globe, this carnival event is played across city-based franchises. This time round, the Kalinga Lancers were announced as the sixth team in the Hockey India League (HIL). Ranchi Rays (formerly called Ranchi Rhinos) stood first in the league standings but were ousted in the semifinals. It was third time lucky for Punjab Warriors after having finished runners-up, last two times.
Talismanic defender Rupinder Pal Singh won the player of the tournament. Among the young guns, this year’s find was Sumit Kumar having been awarded the ‘Upcoming Player of the Tournament’. The tournament also endured a disastrous note as Birendra Lakra got injured and had to undergo a crucial knee surgery jeopardising his Olympic hopes.
As a pilot project, the importance of field goals was doubled compared to the goals scored from penalty corners giving impetus to the traditional art of scoring. Moreover, if this experiment proved successful, it would translate directly to global hockey tournaments.
Men’s Champions Trophy 2016
In a high tempo final match of the Men’s Champions Trophy 2016, India had to settle for silver after losing out narrowly in what was a controversial penalty shootout to world no. 1 Australia. It was heartening to see India battle all odds (they needed some favour from other teams to grab the semis spot) and showing tremendous grit to all but clinch the gold in the 36th FIH Champions Trophy held in London, UK.
This young team played a fearless brand of hockey; picking themselves up when trailing by a goal to fighting till the very end. What was even better was the fact that this tournament was won with the help of Rupinder Pal Singh, Sardara Singh, Birendra Lakra; the former two being rested and the later ruled out due to injury!
Sardar Singh’s off-field doldrums meant Oltmans had to search for a new leader and this initiated the multiple captain concept. India relied more on field goals in this tournament with young forward Mandeep Singh being the leading goal scorer. The young duo of Harmanpreet Singh and Surendar Kumar were at their best in the defensive duties, shouldering the responsibility in the absence of senior pros with calmness and maturity.
The Olympics carnival
The preparations began with the inaugural six nations invitational tournament in Valencia, Spain to trim the final squad for Rio Olympics 2016. It was here that veteran defender Lakra made a comeback after his knee surgery but was, however, deemed not fit to be included in the Rio squad.
Head coach Roelant Oltmans continued with his experiment of rotating captains which meant PR Sreejesh was handed in with the captain’s armband. He was to be supported by other players as on-field captains on a given match day. Trying out sweeper keepers, playing players in multiple roles and positions, India looked fitter and tactically competent to match their opponents. Some narrow losses, especially the failure to score from open play hurt India’s chances to advance beyond the quarterfinal stages as India lost out to eventual finalists, Belgium.
For the Indian Eves, this was an even more momentous occasion, having made the cut after 36 years! The result for both the teams would have been disappointing but what everyone realised was the fact that the Indian Hockey revolution had already moved beyond its embryonic stages.
The Asian Champions Trophy 2016 double!
India had only one mission of winning this cup being the highest ranked team coming into the tournament. Nikkin Thimmaiah scored the winning goal against arch-rivals Pakistan in what has been a very consistent and sustained performance across tournaments from this lad. It was here that the team showed great courage in getting those victories from seemingly tricky positions, be it the semi-finals penalty shootout victory against Korea or the league in the showdown against Pakistan.
All credit to Roelant Oltmans for having prepared such a good bench strength that we have a problem of plenty now! This tournament also saw Akashdeep don the hat of a midfielder as India looked for a worthy replacement to the ageing Sardar and Danish Mujtaba to build up play and feed the forwards. Rupinder Pal Singh was the top scorer here and was yet again awarded the player of the tournament award.
What the men can do, the women can do better!
The Indian Eves matched their counterparts by taming the Chinese dragon in the finals of the Asian Champions Trophy 2016 (ACT2016). Deepika Thakur struck in the final minute to give all Indian fans a thrilling 2-1 win. She was also the highest scorer of the tournament.
Humse jo takraega woh mitti mai miljayega! A big congratulations to our champions. Jai Hind! pic.twitter.com/7pl5KZE39n
— sachin tendulkar (@sachin_rt) November 5, 2016
In case you missed it, watch all the highlights of the Indian Men’s & Women’s ACT 2016 successful campaign here:
The series down under!
Women’s first victory against the world number one team Australia was a narrow 1-0 win courtesy a Poonam Rani low drag flick. This was the first ever win against the Hockeyroos. It was a sweet moment cherished by fans – home and away. India eventually lost the series 2-1, but it was good to see the tenacity and improvement shown in the three-match series. In fact, the Indian eves led in the other two matches till half time. This was by far a befitting farewell to the outgoing coach hailing from Australia, Neil Hawgood. Deepika was once again awarded the Player of the Tournament coming out on top by giving some solid performances in a fierce on-field battle with the mighty Aussies.
There was a reversal when it came to motivation, as the men’s team tried to match their female counterparts this time round. Firstly, they lost out narrowly to an experimental and young Australian side and then to the Kiwis to finally finish third by beating Malaysia in the four-nation tournament down under. Later on, they drew the two-match Test series against the Kookaburras winning the first match comprehensively by 4-2 whereas losing the second match 4-3 in the final minute.
Holistically, it was an improved show against the world champions by both set of teams and showed how consistently we are proving to give a tough fight to the top teams in the world.
Junior Men’s World Cup triumph
What the seniors (men + women) can do, the juniors can better it! The Indian colts capped up an excellent year for Indian hockey by winning the 2016 edition of the Junior Men’s Hockey World Cup held in Lucknow from Dec 8-18th and in the process became the first host nation to do so.
Captain Harjeet Singh didn’t want to leave the much-coveted trophy!
— Virender Sehwag (@virendersehwag) December 19, 2016
Spare a thought for coach Harendra Singh who took the reins of this team two years ago. A range of emotions ran through him as he couldn’t hold himself when India emerged victoriously. For a man who wishes to be draped in the Tiranga and uses Jai Hind as his salutation, Harendra was assigned as the taskmaster to groom this champion team from a bunch of 48 likely candidates. He created a WhatsApp group to go about his mission including motivational words to which the word “Champion” was finally added!
Roelant Oltmans was handed additional charge at the final moment as he skipped India’s Australia tour to give the juniors some last minute pep talk and drills. Furthermore, a special mention to PR Sreejesh for taking out time from his injury time; to coach the young guns especially Vikas Dahiya who has been his understudy much like Akash Chitke as a reserve goalkeeper. The boys would have learned a lot under the tutelage of these bigwigs as they hope to make it to the senior squad soon.
The U-18 Women’s team also won bronze at the 4th Women’s U-18 Asia Cup in late December. The Indian men’s team sits 6th in the FIH world standings whereas the women’s team are in 12th position. The boys have to maintain consistency to remain around the top 5 whereas the girls need to up the ante and defeat their higher ranked opponents to sneak into the top 10.
They have more matches to play with the next edition of HIL lined up in January 2017. It would be happy scouting for the selectors as many juniors would showcase their talent by sharing the stage with the big names in World hockey and for someone like the versatile and extremely talented right back Gurbaj Singh, it would be redemption to come back into the senior setup after a long hiatus! Moreover, it is high time that a women’s league is launched soon given the fact that we already had one last year for Kabaddi.
“Over to you hockey stalwarts: India is eagerly awaiting to see you in action and bring more laurels soon!”