Ric Charlesworth isn’t one for hot takes. But he knew exactly how Indian hockey turned a corner. It was when, the pioneering Australian coach said, the players ‘realised that the international players only had two arms and two legs, just like they do.’
“So psychologically, it was an important barrier to be broken,” he said recently. “More than anything else, I think the Hockey India League was the catalyst for that.”
The day after India’s loss to Germany in the semifinals of the Junior World Cup seems like a good time to revisit Charlesworth’s analysis of India’s climb up the world hockey ladder. For, India’s two Junior World Cup campaigns – in 2016 and the ongoing tournament – show just how important the Hockey India League (HIL) was in developing players.
In 2016, when India ended their 15-year wait to become junior world champions, almost all players in the team had the experience of playing in the HIL, a tournament where they shared the dressing room with the world’s best players and coaches.
The year that followed was the last time the HIL – a success hockey-wise but a commercial failure – was held. Consequently, the bunch of juniors that succeeded the Class of 2016 did not get the same level of exposure and experience. They are, in fact, the first batch of players without any background of playing in the league and, if anything, the last 10 days have highlighted the difference between India’s HIL and post-HIL products.
To be clear, this isn’t about the skill set of the players. Nor is this about the defeat in the semifinal. In fact, for a team like India that came into the tournament without playing even one match for two years due to Covid-related complications, finishing in the top four is commendable.
After all, the Junior World Cup isn’t only about becoming champions. For most teams, this is an ideal platform to check if their U-21s have it in them to make it big. It’s also a test of the domestic systems and in the process, if they end up winning the title, it’s a bonus.
Not the result we wanted but we gave it our all 💪
— Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) December 3, 2021
In that sense, irrespective of the semifinal loss, Sanjay Kumar’s drag-flicks, Sharda Nand Tiwari’s calm defending, Vishnukant Singh’s stick skills and Araijeet Singh Hundal’s power-hitting bode well for Indian hockey going ahead.
However, the team didn’t show the same level of confidence and fearlessness that the generation before them, who played in the HIL, possesses.
The two matches India have played against Germany this year underline the difference. At the Tokyo Olympics, Germany’s aggressive tactics caught India off guard in the beginning but they were quick to react and gave it back to them confidently and without any fear. On Friday, Germany played in a similar fashion once again. But the colts looked intimidated and went into their shells, having never experienced anything like that.
Fought till the finish 💔
— Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) December 3, 2021
Strong domestic league
Nothing illustrated the benefits of having a strong domestic league than the supply chain of players India has had in the last eight years.
“It was a turning point for Indian hockey,” former High-Performance Director David John says. “Birendra Lakra, for example, was playing with (Australia’s) Fergus Kavanagh and the two of them were a force. Birendra got a lot of confidence out of playing with someone like Fergus and he then took that form into international hockey.”
It isn’t a coincidence that some of Lakra’s best years with the national team came when he was also at the peak of his form in the HIL. The same can also be said of captain Manpreet Singh, who has earlier stated that playing alongside former Germany star Moritz Fuerste for one month helped him grow ‘several years as a player’.
While Manpreet, Lakra and other national team regulars got better by playing in the HIL, an entire generation of young players – Surender Kumar, Mandeep Singh, Amit Rohidas and the rest – got a taste of playing against foreign players even before they made their international debut. Also, by the time they got selected for the national team, they had dozens of high-quality competitive matches under their belts.
To ensure that the ‘next generation is a strong generation’, Belgium U-21 coach Jeroen Baart, who has been with the junior side since 2015, said tournaments like the HIL will be important.
“It was a massive boost for hockey in India. Unfortunately, it’s not been there for the last few years. Hopefully, it can come back so it can help these boys perform better, for their rise to the top. Not just senior players but also players who are younger,” Baart said.
Baart understands the importance of a robust domestic structure. That’s how Belgium shot to the top of the world after being nowhere close a little more than a decade ago.
In the beginning, when Belgium did not have a strong league, they sent their players to the Netherlands, who boast the strongest domestic club competition in the world. That experience helped the national team, and the players shared their knowledge with those back home, along with foreign expertise, to develop their own domestic structure.
Now, France, one of the most-improved teams in recent years, is following a similar model. Some of their key players play in the Belgian league while at the same time, the French federation is trying to create a strong local league of its own.
India’s junior and senior players, who are holed up in the national camp for the most part of the year, do not play in the European leagues. In the last decade, Sardar Singh was the only active national team player to ply his trade in Europe. Devendra Walmiki, who played in the Rio Olympics, followed the former captain’s footsteps. But by then, he had been sidelined from the national team programme.
Hockey India has not stated its policy, if any, on Indian players’ participation in leagues abroad. It has, however, hinted that the HIL could be revived. That will be crucial to maintain the momentum that Indian hockey has picked right now.
Not just to continue producing players who are skillful, which India has kept on doing, but also fearless. Or to paraphrase Charlesworth, make them believe that ‘the international players only had two arms and two legs, just like they do.’
Playing on Sunday
Third-place match, 4.30 pm: India vs France
Final, 7.30 pm: Argentina vs Germany