The A-Z Of Indian Men's Hockey Squad's Journey To The Bronze Medal At The Tokyo Olympic Games

by Sumati Mehrishi - Aug 5, 2021 05:57 PM +05:30 IST
The A-Z Of Indian Men's Hockey Squad's Journey To The Bronze Medal At The Tokyo Olympic Games The Indian men's hockey team after winning the bronze in Tokyo
  • From losing out on an Olympic place in 2008 Beijing, to bronze in 2020 Tokyo, here's a brief recap of the Indian men's hockey team's journey.

The Indian men's hockey squad has beaten Germany to clinch the bronze medal at the ongoing Tokyo Olympic Games. Combining several wins from the past to tailor this one precious victory, India came back from behind, to level, to surpass, to squeeze Germany, finally defeating the European chasers of perfection of the recent past. India rolled generations into one match and squeezed years of sweat off those jerseys to wash away the German squad from podium hope. This energised leap after four decades has outboxed work that goes back to more or less 10 years.

The Berlin Olympic hockey final in 1936 and the memories of this match in Indian hockey history have been reignited by the men led by coach Graham Reid.

There are positive factors that simultaneously pulled out Indian hockey from the narrative that mainstream media still clings to—that of grass to astroturf shift and its impact on Asian and Indian hockey.

The A-Z of these factors has given cut-glass sharpness to Indian hockey that finally needs to get past Belgium as a united galloping entity from Asia. Roundedness waits. The A-Z also connects the past to the future.

Adrian Joseph D'Souza: The unsung catalyst. Former goalkeeper of the Indian hockey men's team, he stood for the need for change—a change in scenario during years when defeat and stubborn factors in the "system" would surpass the work that went towards pride-sustenance in Indian hockey. He took the impact of this "standing up" on his chin—on his own career. The "standing up" reflected his thick love for the game, his values, and his courage.

The resulting change made room for a process, for organised improvement. Changed the system and federations.

There are reasons why Adrian and goalkeeper PR Sreejesh goes lumpy in the throat, all teary-eyed, at the mention of each other (this author has witnessed it). After that decisive save from Sreejesh six seconds from the final horn, today, it was a full circle for Adrian himself—the former roommate, 'brother', mentor, friend of Sreejesh.

Ball Possession. Belgium. Bronze. Beginning: I mean and say it in that order. Ball possession was more precious than the bronze itself. Germany edged past India in ball possession at the end of the second half. India upped it while coming from behind. India constructed penalty corners. The midfield pressed more steam into it. Defenders worked on releases. Ball possession climbed to 52 per cent. Germany fought to chip it down under pressure.

Next' B'—Belgium—the gold winners in Tokyo, the whetting stone for India in this author's view. Belgium is and will be that brilliant, distant, blood-hungry opponent that will contribute to Indian hockey by keeping our squad on its feet.

Bronze is ours. It's the beginning for Indian hockey. It's just the beginning. We must use our game propelled by Belgium to beat Belgium to play for the World Cup 2023 and for the Olympic Games Paris. They are 16 years into work that has taken them to the match for gold at Tokyo, and for us, roughly 12.

Comeback from Chile: The moments of Prabhjot Singh and Rajpal Singh—despairing, digging knees at the defeat in the Olympic qualifiers to Beijing 2008—a devastating turning point. India lost the qualifier for the Olympic Games. The first Olympic Games in 88 years without India's men's hockey team present—imagine the depth of this low after a record 18 Olympic Games editions from Amsterdam 1928 till Athens 2004. Paved way for London 2012.

The forwards from Great Britain who contributed to India's ouster would stand as a challenge till the first half of the next decade. Indian hockey stood on sore ankles to reach improvement in 2010 and thereon towards London (to finish last). On 5 August 2021 (Tokyo 2020), the Indian men's squad redefined "comeback" — as if in a tribute to the old guard.

Defence: The wall (as PR Sreejesh is known) would be a lone brick if not for the complete wall of Indian defence. The rush back at the defence, the deep pressing into it, staying strong in those minutes at hem-ends of each quarter, Indian defence, with Rupinder Pal as its glittering gold today, maintaining their calm, clean, card-less stance. They cold-pressed Germany to keep them a whisker away.

Emotion: Nilakanta Sharma wiping tears of his mates, his family members back in Manipur dancing to drums, Sreejesh climbing up the goal post in triumph, quiet, introspection minutes after the celebrations. Manpreet Singh crying like a baby, Mandeep matching his tears; there are only commas to this story of emotion that has men in blue crying like babies. The story has no full stop. The emotions are two—hockey and resilience.

Fresh legs: The entering of this term meant that it would make way for the exit of several skilful in the different tournaments. Painful for some, especially seniors. Fresh legs fuel the forward line and set the flanks on fire. They give the runs, runs along, the preparedness to stand against the regrouping of the opponent, for the pressing on the midfield and not going for the deep defence and an endless list. The squad has, in a decade, run through several phases of work to not lose steam in the last quarter. Fresh legs—that was the squad to Tokyo. Hardik Singh and Harmanpreet's partnership in the drag-flick and immediately—Harmanpreet Singh clawing the score for India with his drag-flick—pure youth.

Graham Reid: The artiste, provocateur, sculptor who brought the team to the podium. Studied the weak points after India lost to Belgium. He kept a finger on the early give-aways against Belgium, worked to pull away the team from scoreboard pressure, yelled from the dug bench to overturn the pressure created by the Germans back on them.

He kept the boys in the right mental frame. Announced the team would bounce back against Germany, mentioned PM Modi's phone call. Has taken the baton from previous coaches, pushed the squad to the podium as the finish line. Defence and midfield are his own departments. He flushed that experience and strength into the squad.

Harendra Singh: I would call him the Pitamah of India's journey. The Pitamah from Bihar who sobs in joy, and when required, seethes in silence. He is the nurturer of the crop, the sprouts-watcher, nourisher, the hard task man, the navigator of youth across roughly the three slots of experience slabs. In 2012, he spoke to this author on what was missing in London (when the team reached pit bottom rank 12). He was hurt. In the 2013 junior world cup (Delhi), when Belgium's junior squad was surprising Germany in the opener, Singh sat quietly making notes on his electronic pad. He wasn't serving the squad in any capacity then. He would return to the coach. Singh has got a sweet reward for being himself—in this bronze. He is at the core of the core. Return, sir (he is in the US).

India: The bronze at the Tokyo games is a hard-fought renewal in India's soft power. This is just the beginning that will rejuvenate the hockey hubs and nurseries like never before—soft power at home, first, then, to the world.

Jose Brasa: He once saw how the Indian men face humiliation from Pakistanis when they lost a match. He wanted to change it. He entered. He changed it. Badal diya. He brought the squad to the alphabet in drills and action, brought the men to touch their roots in the game and to look at the basic drawing board.

Kickoff: The bronze marks a kickoff beginning that must kick off diversity in the flanks. The game against Germany and Belgium alone make for a strong case for it. The left and right of the flank need a bigger, stronger, diversity-kickoff to match the left and right of Belgium, Germany, Australia in the coming years.

League: the incoming of the league matches (HIL)—a shot in the arm and legs. It has given muscle to the skills, minds and confidence of the players. Their confidence springs up. They find the interaction they need with foreign players as teammates. Suddenly those very mates turn opponents. Advantage team India.

Manpreet and Mandeep: their jugalbandi is distantly placed at two different ends of skills, talent and blood-sweat. They have held the game, guided, faltered, returned, frowned patiently, to reduce the distance between midfield, flanks, and deep defence by squeezing just about everyone else in with their play. Deflections and diversions we saw debuting before us at the stand and media stand in Delhi, of Mandeep, replayed in Tokyo. Obviously.

North East: The presence of Kothajit Singh (Manipur) and Chinglensana (Manipur) Singh are fondly missed by this author in the Tokyo squad. Diversity, dedication, muscle, quiet manoeuvring. That's them. Just a few years and Nilakanta (Manipur) is representing them both in him, with his own ingenuity and uniqueness. What a stealer Nilakanta was today and what a runner. "Kotha(jit), bol ke khel, oye, Kotha, bol ke khel": the yells at the goal post from former goalie Bharat Chetri—the roaring tiger from Darjeeling—filled our climb to London 2012. That fire was passed down to Sreejesh. The Northeast deserves booster doses of hockey infrastructure and deeper interventions.

Odisha: When I last met Ignace Tirkey before London 2012, he was seen enthusing the juniors (then) at a national camp. There is much more he wanted to give. Dilip Tirkey, the former captain, is celebrating today the win that will inspire generations. Odisha, the cradle, the emotion-home, the sponsor, the venue, the pitch, the turf, the bhoomi of hockey must collate all its strength to actually lend muscle to the squad in a big way once again.

PR Sreejesh: Each minute of continuation-action in Tokyo is a reason why he must not think of retiring yet. There are two people who can convince him into this - his wife - the real soul mate of his own hockey, and Adrian. His story has got a new beginning, a bang at the post-bar with his stick, and into Paris (the state of mind).

Quarters: Indian coaches—between the rule change of the halves into quarters, deserve credit for making the men's squad arise and awake for the four quarters. This moulding actually meant immense work, turning self inside out, with fitness, speed, steam, diet, guts and nerve. The quarters now fit in Indian hockey—it has turned the other way round.

Releasing: it was the soul of the win against Germany. Vivek, Sumit, Rupinder Pal, Harman, Nilakanta, Simran, eked out, slithered away, snatched the game from Germany via their clearance.

Shivendra Singh, SAI Centre Bangalore: Former forward in the Indian team, Shivendra Singh, is in Tokyo as an assistant coach. His fearlessness in attack, his experience in the upward journey, his handling of pressure during the last moments were making their lingering presence felt in the flanks—even though from the bench.

SAI Centre Bangalore: the karmabhoomi of the Indian men's squad that hosts, homes, nurtures them like home away from home. For a year, the squad was away from families pouring game, ball, drill, variation, sequence, match, sweat, testing, tweaking at the turfs here amid the pandemic. Kudos to the staff and mess staff here for being part of the journey—especially in the last 10 years.

Tackling: The men's squad forked and spooned this aspect as if it were to be devoured using the stick. In combination with passing, receiving, releasing, tackling, despite some wants, was the instrument to poke out pressure against the German.

Urgency: shown towards being consistent with the counter attacks paid off. Graham Reid was the only reason and realiser of it, and he triggered the urgency into the squad.

Variations: Delhi—variation-vanguard VR Raghunath constructed them with Rupinder and Sandeep Singh, a different era now. London 2012 needed them, Tokyo 2020 was thirsty for them—thirst largely unquenched, and Paris would be awaiting them. Germany was ahead of India in PC variations in the bronze medal match. The art and timing must trickle in improvisations best.

Whiteline Fever: Aussie coach Michael Nobbs called it out the loudest. His addressing this aspect (nervousness on entering the field as he would describe it then) set the ball rolling for contesting ref judgements, referrals, and performance against the big, bigger, biggest.

Xanthic: Xanthic—the word—is sort of a revelation. It relates to yellow. Relating to yellow—well, just every single way. From coaches Ric Charlesworth and Graham Reid to the jersey yellow, the challenges and defeat it brings, yellow has propelled us on scoreboard, bench, turf, lessons. Learning to face them better will improve the colour of the medal.

Yellow cards: From Santiago to Tokyo, the upward graph of the Indian hockey squad narrates how the men have transformed to dodge the yellow card between these two matches that counted the most to the country, hockey morale and emotion. Deafening contrasts. Says everything about the mental strength and calculated calm delivered by the squad.

Zeitgeist: The word. German roots. The word, meaning, idea, belief, stand with Germany in the backdrop today before the philosophical realms of our own karma and phal. Sticks and legs sang, spoke, surrendered to resilience and the clock—to win that defining moment, that ripping point in spirit, emanating in metal and the colour of transformation.

The medals of the squad will travel to different parts of India when they return from Tokyo. The world has to prepare itself for a silent and surging ignition in Indian hockey from a new Asian giant in the sport. Tears for now.

Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 

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