New Delhi, Jan 24: Before the start of the tournament, the Indian Hockey Team was backed to make it to the semi-finals of the FIH Hockey World Cup 2023 but their first-round exit from the competition has fans stunned.
Indian hockey legends on Tuesday (January 24) slammed Harmanpreet Singh and his band for its 'average' performance where they lost to New Zealand to crash out of the quarterfinal race.
The former players claim the debacle has halted the momentum the nation had gained after winning a historic bronze at the Tokyo Olympics.
India had gone into the showpiece with hopes of finishing on the podium for the first time after the gold medal-winning feat in 1975 but lost to New Zealand in sudden death in the crossover match. The hosts will play 9th to 16th classification matches on Thursday and Saturday in Rourkela.
Member of the 1975 gold-winning team Ashok Kumar said the Indians lacked quality and were far inferior to top nations in all departments of the game.
"The team was given all kinds of support, 6-7 months camp, foreign exposure, top class infrastructure, the best of diets, what else could have been done? And what performance did they give? You cannot even reach the quarterfinals of a home World Cup in front of your fans," Kumar said.
"It has to do a lot with the quality of players, ultimately the debacle was due to average players playing average games. That can't win you a World Cup medal," he added.
Making further analysis of the performance, Kumar said, "Whenever we attacked, most of the time we ended up at the opposition circle. I don't know how the players were trained, there was no distribution of the ball, no creative passes, and they simply didn't know what to do. If you can't score more than four goals against a team like Wales, then what are you doing?
"Since they cannot score from open play, they had to depend on penalty corners and Harmanpreet Singh was under tremendous pressure and he failed. We were not up to the mark in all departments of the game. Except for Akashdeep Singh, I would say no (outfield) player played well in the four matches.
"The team failed miserably in defence also. They conceded two goals against Wales and then allowed New Zealand to come back twice after two-goal down. They cannot do that in a World Cup. I don't know why Rupinder Pal Singh retired after the Olympics, he would have been a great asset in defence and PC conversion," the 72-year-old said.
Asked if there should be changes in the coaching staff, Kumar, who scored the winning goal in the 1975 World Cup final against arch-rivals Pakistan, said, "We have had many foreign coaches in the past but what is our achievement in the World Cup after 1975. So, please tell me what difference would have been there if we had Indian coaches. Indian coaches would not have done worse at least.
"Thanks to the support of the government, especially the Odisha government, we are hosting World Cups here and our team should have capitalised on this. But it's like we are hosting tournaments and our team is not getting better. I feel that the good momentum we gained from the Tokyo Olympics has been halted by this World Cup performance."
Former captain Sardar Singh said the debacle was due to the collective failure of the team. "Hockey is a team game. If you want to win a tournament, 14 to 15 players of the squad need to perform at 70 to 80 per cent, which was missing in this World Cup," said the legendary midfielder, who is part of the Hockey India selection committee.
"Hardik's injury was a big blow as he was the main player in the midfield. He was instrumental in linking up with the forwards and creating opportunities, besides scoring a goal (against Spain)."
Sardar also agreed that Harmanpreet felt the pressure of captaincy as he missed one penalty corner after another. "He (Harmanpreet) felt the pressure of captaincy, that too in a home World Cup. He is one of the best drag-flickers in the world and did well in the Test series against Australia also.
"But he did not look his best, perhaps feeling the pressure. But he is a world-class player and cannot be counted out."
On head coach Graham Reid asking for a mental conditioning coach going ahead, Sardar said, "If he (Reid) felt so, he should have raised the demand after the Olympics. Hockey India and SAI have been providing all necessary help to the team and they would have addressed it too."
Hockey India president and former captain Dilip Tirkey said not reaching the quarterfinals of the World Cup after the high of the Tokyo Olympics less than two years ago was very disappointing.
"Some players from whom we had a lot of expectations, they somehow could not perform. We all have accepted it," he said. "We got several penalty corners but we scored a few from them. There was something missing in our defensive structure also."
(With PTI inputs)