Although India ended their campaign at the 2021 Asian Champions Trophy with a win over Pakistan on Wednesday, there's much to ponder. The defending champions had come into the tournament as heavy favourites, but returned with a bronze medal. A new-look squad comprised mostly of younger players often looked ill at ease, short of ideas and low on intensity.
India went into the Champions Trophy as pre-tournament favourites on the back of their Olympic bronze and the fact that they were the far higher ranked team (WR 3 compared to South Korea, Japan and Pakistan - ranked 16, 17 and 18 respectively). However with the exception of a single league stage victory against Japan which ended 6-0, India never seemed like an elite side.
Despite the usual pre-match talk of taking each game seriously, they appeared to lack intensity early in the semifinal against Japan-conceding twice inside the first two minutes, eventually losing 3-5.
Any lessons from that shock upset were not taken completely to heart in the match against Pakistan. While India had far more chances (27 circle penetrations vs 20 for Pakistan), possession (59 percent) and penalty corners, they were rarely able to hurt the Pakistan side. Mistakes were made even while not under pressure - the most glaring of which was a back pass by Dipsan Tirkey. It almost went straight to Abdul Rana, who rushed forward but was unable to latch onto the ball and missed it. It was the sort of gift that would be punished by any top team.
Whenever the team was put under sustained pressure, India seemed to break -- finishing the match two players short owing to yellow cards.
Overdependence on Harmanpreet
India went into the Asian Champions Trophy retaining just 8 of the players who won India a bronze at the Olympics. Instead, India opted for players under the age of 26, with two exceptions. Coach Graham Reid will be looking at these players when it comes to preparing a team for the 2024 Olympics. Manpreet, who captained India this tournament, noted that it was a chance for the players to make an impression ahead of a crucial 2022 season.
In Dhaka though, the team ended up relying heavily on proven players. Harmanpreet did the bulk of the team's scoring in the tournament with 8 goals - and he put in the first goal of the game against Pakistan as well. However, Harmanpreet has been shouldering the bulk of the drag flick burden, especially following the retirement of Rupinderpal Singh. India ended up scoring just 2 goals out of the eight chances they had off the short corner - Varun Kumar scoring the other one.
Few stand outs
Of the younger players in the squad who were not part of the Olympic Games - only forward Dilpreet Singh can lay claim to have boosted his standing. The 22-year-old scored five goals in the tournament and though he didn't get on the scoresheet against Pakistan, he regularly threatened the Pakistani right flank. Dilpreet made the critical pass that allowed Sumit Kumar to score and level the game for India in the 52nd minute.
Striker Akashdeep Singh too showed flashes of past brilliance; his strike in the 56th minute of the game standing out in particular. Goalkeeper Suraj Karkera has given plenty of hints that he could be India's main custodian going forward.
However the absence of experience in the backline has clearly been a factor in India's last couple of games, which have resulted in the concession of 9 goals. Neither Dipsan Tirkey nor Varun Kumar seem settled and much of India's progress over the next year will depend on how those two, or their replacements, shape up.
Lack of match practice
A clear factor for the team's lack of sharpness was the fact that while the group of players who went for the Olympics were able to play competitive international matches regularly, this option wasn't available for the set who went to the Asian Champions Trophy.
While Pakistan had a couple of players who had participated at the Junior Hockey World Cup earlier this month, none of the Indian team had been drawn from the players who had competed in Bhubaneswar. The team had been training and practicing together as a group, but when asked to put together those same practices in a high pressure situation, they were found wanting.
In the half time interval, with India held to a 1-1 scoreline despite creating more chances, coach Graham Reid mentioned that the team had to stay patient and continue creating chances in the hope that some of them would eventually be converted. It was something Indian captain Manpreet Singh also alluded to after the bronze medal match as well. "We don't have enough experience to finish the game," he said.
Ahead of a busy international calendar next year, much will depend on the kind of international exposure this group of players gets.