It will take something extraordinary to stop India from reclaiming the gold medal at next month’s Asian Games. And if history is anything to go by, it’ll be their hubris.
Saturday’s Asian Champions Trophy final against Malaysia may have been a timely eye-opener but over the last 10 days, the gulf in class between India, who jumped to the world number 3 spot on Sunday, and the rest of Asia became as clear as day.
In the six-team tournament, which the hosts won after coming back from two goals down at half-time, India were the only unbeaten side. They scored 29 goals, conceded just eight; won 59 penalty corners, converting 16. And their 12 field goals were almost as many as the total goals scored by half the teams in Chennai.
At least when they are playing Asian opponents, India seem to have embraced new coach Craig Fulton’s philosophy and aced the strategic tests.
They’ve shown the ability to switch tactics midway through a match and staged comebacks on the back of their superior fitness.
In many ways, India find themselves in an eerily similar position as they did five years ago before the Jakarta Asiad, where they inexplicably lost in the semifinals to Malaysia.
If they conquer the demons in their heads, India should finish on the top of the podium in Hangzhou on October 6, clinch the Paris Olympics berth and avoid a potentially complicated route to France via Pakistan, where one of the qualifier tournaments will be held.
And so, when the team re-assembles in Bengaluru on August 21, one gets the feeling that as much as Fulton’s coaching on the technical aspects, mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton’s inputs will be equally crucial, if not more.
The two South Africans have been an influential presence in the Indian dugout in the last few weeks; one adding a layer to India’s playing style and the other understanding the players’ psyche.
“The main reason to get Paddy on board is that he brings in a lot of experience working in India and obviously for the success he has had with the Indian cricket team,” Fulton had said earlier.
When he was the coach of Ireland and an assistant in the Belgian set-up, Fulton had tried in vain to get Upton to work with those teams. But the latter needed no convincing when Fulton approached him with the offer to be a part of the Indian support staff, having previously worked with the World Cup-winning cricket team.
“He knows the culture, the diversity and the performance of the Indian team. At the same time, he brings the leadership we are looking to instill and help deal with expectations and big moments, which we will be having a lot going forward,” the head coach had said.
India captain Harmanpreet Singh spoke before the tournament about the team’s tendency to relax against lower-ranked opponents (read: Asian sides), which have cost them dear. On Saturday after beating Malaysia, he once again underlined the need to work on ‘mental strength’ in the coming days, suggesting that Upton’s hands will be full when the camp resumes.
“We have been talking about (developing) mental strength and we are showing that on the field,” Harmanpreet said, referring to the character shown by the team in coming back from 1-3 down in the final to win 4-3.
There could be no bigger confidence-booster for a team weeks before an Olympic qualifying event than to win a title against the very opponents they will be facing again. Yet, when it comes to India, there’s always an asterisk alongside.
These were home conditions, in front of a partisan crowd and, in the bigger picture, an inconsequential tournament. How the team reacts if they find themselves in a similar situation in Hangzhou will be interesting to see.
Manpreet is best suited in midfield
Yet, there were plenty of takeaways for India. The biggest among them was the partnership between Manpreet Singh, Hardik Singh and Vivek Sagar Prasad in midfield.
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Manpreet was in sparkling form throughout with his mazy individual runs and precise through balls, setting up scoring opportunities for the forwards. He revelled in his old position in the centre of the midfield after Fulton played him in the defence in the last two tournaments.
“In this tournament, while playing in the midfield, the coach gave a lot of freedom. Hardik, Vivek and I are defensive midfielders and we were told that since we have skills, we can use them to create opportunities,” Manpreet said. “The combination between the three of us worked quite well and we got a lot of support from the defenders. Because of them, we could use our freedom well and distribute the ball effectively.”
The midfield trio kept India ticking both in terms of providing defensive solidarity as well as heft to attacks. The latter was especially true against Malaysia in the final, where India faced their toughest test of the competition.
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For Fulton, it was just the kind of match he needed to judge how his players respond under pressure. “It’s important to have games like this. At the same time, it’s not the Asian Games so our feet are firmly on the ground,” he said. “We have won this tournament but if you’d have asked me ‘you win the Asian Games and lose this final’, I’d have obviously said the Asian Games.”