2014 review: Indian hockey team shows signs of revival
New Delhi: An Asian Games gold medal after a 16-year hiatus and a direct ticket to the 2016 Olympic Games were some of the high points in what was a rare successful year for Indian hockey even though national coach Terry Walsh’s unceremonious resignation provided a bitter ending to 2014.
It was a year of development for Indian hockey as the senior men’s team took giant strides towards reclaiming its past glory, which included eight Olympic gold medals.
Besides the Asian Games gold in Incheon, South Korea, the men’s team registered several other memorable victories including a historic Test series win against world champions Australia in their own backyard.
Walsh had a rather gloomy start to his coaching stint in India as the senior men’s team finished a lowly sixth in the eight-nation Hockey World League (HWL) Final, which incidentally was the Australian’s first assignment with the eight-time Olympic champions.
The Sardar Singh-led side looked completely disorganised in the tournament and from their performance in the HWL Final it was quite apparent that they would need time to get used to the coaching methods of Walsh. The only positive that came out from the tournament was a 5-4 victory over Olympic champions Germany.
After taking over the team, Walsh hardly got any time to try out things before his first big assignment, the World Cup at The Hague, Netherlands.
The only platform the Australian got prior to the World Cup was the preparatory tour to The Hague. Walsh used this tour to test his combinations and worked tirelessly on the basic skills and fitness of the players, the results of which started to show slowly as the year progressed.
However, at the World Cup, the team disappointed finishing a disappointing ninth.
Conceding late goals, their perennial problem, continued to haunt India in the World Cup as they suffered close defeats against Belgium and England and drew against Spain before being drubbed 0-4 by eventual champions Australia.
The Indians, however, managed to beat South Korea 3-0 to finish ninth.
With pride at stake and their capability in question, the Indians went to Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games determined to prove their critics wrong and they managed to do that to some extent with a silver medal finish.
After taking over, Walsh always stressed on the need to improve as an individual and as a team and the Indians really showed signs of improvement in Glasgow.
India’s impressive outing in the Commonwealth Games came against New Zealand in the semifinal as despite missing their inspirational skipper Sardar Singh, the young team came from two goals down to stun the Black Sticks and set up a date with Australia in the title clash for the second consecutive time.
But the mighty Kookaburras yet again proved too strong for India as they produced another clinical performance to bag their second consecutive CWG title.
Under Walsh, the Indian men’s team continued its upward journey and managed to break their 16-year-old gold medal jinx in the Asian Games.
India managed to withstand the pressure exerted by hosts South Korea in the semifinal before beating Pakistan in the final to bag its first Asiad gold since 1998.
The triumph was more pleasing as it gave India direct qualification to 2016 Rio Olympics. It was double celebrations for India in the Asian Games as the women’s team also featured on the podium, finishing third.
Building on the Incheon success, India defeated Australia 3-1 in a rare series victory Down Under. The series showed the mental toughness of Indian players as they clinched the rubber after being humiliated in the first match.
But the momentum which India gained in the year was lost by the untimely and poorly handled resignation of Walsh.
After guiding the team to the Asian Games gold, Walsh tendered his resignation, demanding an improvement in his pay packet and more decision making powers, most notably in selection of the players.
But despite valiant efforts from his employer, the Sports Authority of India and sports minister Sarbananda Sonowal, SAI could not retain Walsh even though the Australian was eager to work with the Indian team.
The entire process was derailed at the last moment by Hockey India president Narinder Batra who suddenly brought up Walsh’s alleged financial irregularities during his tenure with USA Field Hockey.
Batra was adamant that Walsh had to come clear on the allegations before continuing as India coach.
Walsh’s exit came as a big setback for the team which clearly was showing signs of improvement under the Australian.
The Indian suddenly found themselves on the backfoot while staging the prestigious Champions Trophy in a month’s time.
After Walsh’s exit, high performance director Roelant Oltmans was given the additional charge of the team for the Champions Trophy in Bhubaneswar.
Under Oltmans, the team tried hard to recover from the Walsh setback but the hosts were inconsistent in their performance in the elite eight-nation event.
India lost to Germany and Argentina in their opening two pool matches but came back strongly to beat the Netherlands after 18 years.
In the quarterfinals, the ninth-ranked Indians stunned World No. 4 Belgium to set up a mouth-watering clash against arch-rivals Pakistan in the semifinal.
But India’s campaign in the tournament ended on a sour note as they conceded a late goal to go down against Pakistan in the semifinal. The hosts later lost to Australia in the play-offs to finish fourth in the tournament.
Meanwhile, the year started with the national federation successfully hosting the second edition of Hero Hockey India League, where most of the domestic players rubbed shoulders against top foreign players. The 2014 season of the franchise-based event was eventually won by Sardar-led Delhi Waveriders.
The Indian hockey eves also made significant progress in the year under Neil Hawgood’s guidance but were dealt a shock at the year end when the Australian decided not to renew his contract citing personal problems.
Meanwhile, the Indian Under-21 team also gave the country’s hockey fans reasons to cheer when they successfully defended the Sultan of Johor Cup title.