The 48-year wait for a Hockey World Cup title continues for India. A disappointing tournament ended for the hosts on Sunday when New Zealand knocked India out in a shootout. After pre-tournament predictions of a shot at the semifinals, India now have to play two classification matches for 9-16 positions in the World Cup.
So, what went wrong? There were larger issues that plagued India but also small details that went against them.
Harmanpreet's penalty corners
Prior to the World Cup, captain Harmanpreet Singh was dubbed the most important player for India. However, when India needed their world class dragflicker to be at his best, Harmanpreet missed most of his chances - with just one success from 13 shots at goal in four matches. That solitary penalty corner conversion came when Wales took their goalkeeper off while chasing the game in the final quarter.
To be clear, Harmanpreet had a good outing as a defender. He led the charts in interceptions and blocks for India. He was also one of the main reasons why India did well defensively in the first two matches against Spain and England. But Harmanpreet couldn't provide the goals when India needed them. What also threw the team off course were his missed penalty stroke in the match against Spain and then his shootout miss against New Zealand - when he could have won the match for India.
India could convert only five out of 27 PC chances, of which three goals came via rebounds after India had missed their direct hits. It's a long way off from the Olympics, when India scored 10 from 31. Even in the recent Test series against Australia, India scored at a good ratio - eight in 34 attempts.
Hardik Singh's injury
While converting penalty corners was under India's control, the injury to their in-form midfielder was just plain bad luck. A player of Hardik Singh's calibre is hard to replace. He can start attacking moves, score goals, press hard, run the whole match and also produce key tackles and blocks. This was the case against Spain, which resulted in an India win.
If India had Hardik on the pitch for the final quarter against New Zealand, they wouldn't have been so listless.
Not once, not even in the 2-0 win against Spain, did India completely dominate the proceedings or at least make things comfortable for themselves. It was a tough group with quality teams, no doubt, but India rarely took the chance, when offered, to control proceedings.
Be it playing against 10-man New Zealand in the final quarter and not taking advantage or conceding twice when they were two goals up against Wales, they kept offering opportunities to their opponents to get back into matches.
Graham Reid said the Indian team haven't had a mental coach so far, and says mental conditioning is an area that his team needs to improve on after their elimination from the #HockeyWorldCup2023. pic.twitter.com/CL4Y8v6nq6
- ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) January 22, 2023
Maybe this is where a mental conditioning coach comes into the picture. What's the point of doing everything right in the practice sessions but being unable to handle the pressure on the field? Whether it was the pressure within the match or even expectations of playing in front of a home crowd, India could have done better. It is encouraging that Graham Reid has recognised the importance of a mental coach. Perhaps it is too little, too late though.
Experienced players disappoint
Reid's choice of picking players with experience rather than banking on youngsters didn't work out. Lalit Upadhyay and Vivek Sagar Prasad did not have much game time before the World Cup as both were returning from injuries. The duo were underwhelming in most of their time on the pitch at the World Cup. Amit Rohidas did well in the opening match, but couldn't maintain his consistency in the rest of the games. Although he played well against Wales and New Zealand, Akashdeep didn't start the tournament as well as he would've wanted.
Reid left out some promising talent coming through for this World Cup, and might be regretting his choice.
Forwards didn't offer goals
To compound India problems with converting penalty corners, their forwards also didn't do enough to produce goals. Lalit, Abhishek and Sukhjeet Singh struggled to create or score. The only time Indian forwards worked in tandem was against Wales, when Mandeep Singh and Akashdeep combined well.
Mandeep had a good tournament, he was often the only one making things happen on the pitch, but he needed more support from his teammates. One of the significant differences between India and other big teams like Australia, Belgium and Netherlands is that their forwards started clicking at the right time. Tom Boon (Belgium), Blake Govers (Australia) and Thierry Brinkman (Netherlands) and Niklas Wellen (Germany) got into the act with five or six goals each.
India faced inspired players and countries
If not for goalkeeper Ollie Payne's terrific performance, India would've scored against England. Wales had nothing to lose so they came hard against India. New Zealand knew the pressure was on India, so they exploited it to maximum effect. It doesn't have to be tactical always, sometimes simple things like having the right mindset can make a big difference.