Many believe that the 9-12 bracket India finished in was not indicative of its true potential. Soothing to Indian ears, no doubt, but there was so much difference between supposed potential and actual performance that it was hard to believe this team was ever capable of reaching the semi-finals, a target set by chief coach Cedric D'Souza before he got the boot in the middle of the tournament (see box).
With the benefit of hindsight, and as per Cedric's own admission, the team could have been better prepared but for the cancellation of the training-cum-competition camp in Argentina in January. Instead, the probables were put through the grinder at lengthy camps where they played matches among themselves.
The run-up to the Cup was also sullied by the extraordinary selection process. The 22-member squad reached Malaysia in the first week of February, ostensibly to adapt to local conditions. Following the team was the Indian Hockey Federation's selection committee—president K.P.S. Gill, secretary-general K. Jothikumaran, Prithviraj and Syed Jalaluddin Rizvi—who, along with Cedric and team manager K.G.S. Alva, chose the final 18 barely two weeks before the cup started. Thus, until the last minute, players were kept in suspense as to who would be called upon to perform. This was much like what happened in the Sydney Olympics when the team was finalised in Australia rather than in India.
Once in Kuala Lumpur, Cedric made brave statements about the team's readiness to meet any challenge. And then, in the opening game against Japan, the Indians had to fight to force a 2-2 draw. Against Korea, the Indians blew chances galore and gift-wrapped a 2-1 victory to the opponents. Ditto against Malaysia, when the Indian defence gave ground due to faulty marking and covering, not to speak of skipper Baljit Singh Dhillon's missed penalty stroke, and lost 2-3. Against England, the scoreline read the same. The common thread running through these debacles was weak-kneed deep defence and non-existent midfield play.
The first four matches knocked out not just India's chances, but also the coach. Too late, the team picked itself up to beat minnows Cuba (4-0) and Poland (4-1), and then came up with their best performance to date against Australia in their last league fixture for a 4-3 win.
Thus, the pre-tournament hype, in the wake of the junior World Cup triumph and the Champions Challenge tournament, proved grossly inflated. To be fair, Cedric did try to contain the euphoria—he knew that the success had come against teams at the basement level, but every other player was hailed as "great" and a "match-winner", especially the juniors. Emotions got the better of sound judgement, leading to unrealistic expectations for the World Cup.
In Kuala Lumpur, the scene of India's only World Cup triumph (1975), the team was cruelly exposed. As one without a centre-half capable of directing midfield operations, or a centre-forward. The deep defence inspired no confidence, and with goalkeeper Jude Menezes hitting a low, the team found itself on the wrong side of the stick.
Perhaps, Cedric's ideas should not have been faulted, but for the fact that the players appeared incapable of translating his thoughts into action. Unfortunately, there are few takers for the theory that Indians are "instinctive" in their approach to hockey. Only Vasudevan Bhaskaran, who like Cedric had been in and out of charge, gave due weightage to this and did not burden the boys with too much theory, allowing them to play their "natural game".But he too failed to get the best results. Another theory is the players were subjected to an overdose of hockey, leading to mental fatigue. Cedric had introduced the concept of "active rest", wherein the players, after training sessions in the morning, had to sit through video sessions and theory classes through the day before getting back on the field in the evenings.
Some senior players confessed that they had few opportunities to take their minds off the game. "Look at the Australians or the Dutch, or, most other teams. The players get out of their hotels, enjoy the sights and sounds, and generally take time out from hockey. But the Indian players always seem to be in team meetings or video sessions. So how do you expect them to be fresh for the matches?" wondered Bhaskaran. Cedric's intense love for hockey is well known, but probably he erred in believing that those around him possess the same passion. Commented one senior player in frustration: "You know, sometimes it's like being in a prison: hockey, hockey, hockey, all the time. How much can we digest?"
It would seem that when the team is doing well, everything is hunky-dory and problems within the team get swept under the target. But no sooner the side is on the slide, the darker elements come out of the woodwork. Be that as it may, the positive side is that the present team, packed with juniors (or "less experienced players", to quote Cedric), can be groomed into a better side to target the 2004 Olympics. The 10th World Cup is now history, and it's time to look ahead.
But the question is: do we have the visionaries in our midst?
(The author is editor, khel.com)