Bengaluru, December 24: After months of uncertainty, Hockey India extended Dutchman Roelant Oltmans' contract for four years as the head coach of the men's team in November 2016. Barely one year into that extension, Oltmans was abruptly sacked as coach.
The administrators of the sport in India were happy that India managed a gold at the Asian Champions Trophy and silver medals at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and Champions Trophy. HI, which was fine with a quarterfinal finish at the 2016 Rio Games, suddenly woke up to a sixth-place finish in the Hockey World League (HWL) Semi-Final in London. They subsequently sacked Oltmans on September 2 - the fourth foreigner to leave India in the last four years.
In came fellow Dutchman Sjoerd Marijne, who was helming the Indian women's hockey team at the HWL Semi-Final in South Africa. As a replacement for Marijne, HI appointed Harendra Singh, the 2016 junior World Cup winning coach.
"If you come to India as a foreign coach, there is one thing for sure - before you finish your contract, you will be fired," Oltmans remarked. Oltmans now serves in the Madhya Pradesh Hockey Academy.
Marijne, fortunately, has survived the acid test already after leading India to a gold at the Asia Cup in Dhaka and a bronze at the HWL Final at home in Bhubaneswar. While India's victory at the Asia Cup was comprehensive, they made best use of the tournament's format to grab the bronze with just two wins - in the quarterfinal against Belgium and the third place playoff against a depleted Germany.
Nevertheless, there were many standout performances in the team at the HWL Final. Goalkeeper Akash Chikte, who was in the side as regular keeper and captain PR Sreejesh missed out due to an injury, squeezed India into the semis after pulling off a block in the sudden death of the shootout against Belgium in their last-eight contest.
Chikte apart, India have found their next regular drag-flicker in Harmanpreet Singh, who could combine well with defender Rupinderpal Singh in the future tournaments for India. Harmanpreet scored seven goals in India's title-winning campaign at the Asia Cup in October.
Forward SV Sunil, who missed out late 2016 for India due to an ankle injury, looks to have finally found his feet again. Manpreet Singh has done well as captain for India under the absence of Sreejesh. Even forward Mandeep Singh, who won the 2016 junior World Cup, has established himself in the senior team, accounting for many of India's field goals this year.
Veteran goalkeeper Sreejesh was in the news for all the wrong reasons this year. While recovering from his ankle injury, the Kerala native participated in a charity match between Bollywood celebrities and Indian sportsmen in Mumbai. Sreejesh did not obtain the permission of HI before playing the match. HI seems to have rested the matter for now instead of suspending him for a couple of months.
Direct qualification for women
While the coaching saga has dominated news, Indian women slowly worked their way in international hockey to end the year at the 10th spot, climbing two spots and recording their best ever ranking so far.
Their biggest achievement this year has been the win at the Asia Cup in Japan, recording a shootout win over higher-ranked China. With the win, India earned a direct entry for the 2018 World Cup. Without that victory, India would have still qualified as hosts, but that triumph has boosted the confidence in the camp.
"We always wanted to qualify by merit and not just make up the numbers as the host nation," defender Sushila Chanu, who captained India in the 2016 Rio Olympics, said. "That win has given us a lot of confidence to take on 2018 by the horns and prove our mettle in world hockey."
Coach Harendra said he has focussed on improving the fitness levels of the girls ever since he took over the side in September. "The days of skill-based hockey in India are over," he said. "Along with the skill, which Indians possess naturally, I have focussed on improving the fitness levels of the team. That was the main focus of the camp before the New Year. When we return after a break, we will build up individual skills for the women - receiving the ball, controlling possession, passing the ball, positioning in the field etc."
Unprofessional with Hockey Pro League
HI again let India down in the international stage after pulling out of the Hockey Pro League this year. The league, envisioned to replace the HWL tournaments, will see nine teams (men and women) competing in a round-robin format on a home and away basis.
HI defended the move saying playing in the tournament serves it no purpose as the top-four finishers in the Hockey Pro League only get a chance to play in the Olympic qualifiers.
This came at a time when Narinder Batra, an ex-HI president, is heading the International Hockey Federation (FIH).
Many events point at a friction between India and the world body. First, FIH, barring Batra, expressed unhappiness that India wore black armbands during a match against Pakistan during the HWL Semi-Final in London. Certain reports also suggest that Batra was unhappy with England police questioning former India captain Sardar Singh over an alleged sexual harassment complaint in the middle of the HWL Semi-Final.
Not bothered about India's pull-out, FIH named Spain (men) and Belgium (women) as the replacement sides for India.
A podium finish is always good🥉! Huge thanks to everyone who have supported @TheHockeyIndia specially to our fans in Bhubaneswar. Perfect ending to our 2017 campaign - a great learning curve & experience for the team, we will be back stronger and finer in 2018. #JunoonJeetKa pic.twitter.com/rpRsHA3kQe— Manpreet Singh (@manpreetpawar07) December 11, 2017
While India's off-field achievements, or the lack of it, have dominated headlines in 2017, the next year can make or break Indian hockey.
India have three important tournaments coming up this year - Commonwealth Games (Gold Coast), Asian Games (Jakarta) and World Cup (Bhubaneswar).
The men's team, the gold medallists at Incheon in 2014, is expected to repeat that feat and qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. They are ranked the highest team in Asia, but could face some heavy competition from Malaysia, Korea and Japan.
The Indians are also expected to grab a medal at the Commonwealth Games, where they will battle the likes of world champions Australia and England. A bronze medal finish at the World Cup would be a good result for India.
The women's team hopes to grab two medals from the three competitions this year. "This year is very important for us as it will kick-start our preparations for the 2020 Olympics," coach Harendra said. "If we qualify early by winning the gold at the Asian Games, we will have lots of time to prepare for Tokyo. Or else, we will have that on the back of our minds when we play other tournaments."
Chanu added: "A gold medal is a must for us at the Asian Games. That apart, we hope to grab a medal at the Commonwealth Games or the World Cup."