This piece was published on Sportskeeda
After the senior team’s disastrous wooden spoon finish at the 2012 London Olympics, the Indian junior men’s hockey team gave its die-hard fans plenty to rejoice about, turning in a creditable runners-up finish at the recently-concluded second Sultan of Johor Cup, held in Johor Bahru, Malaysia.
Not many would have put their money on the Indians to go the distance or even trip at the final hurdle. Of course, there would be many disappointed fans as well given the fact that India lost in the final to a side they had beaten quite convincingly in the league phase. But let’s not forget that Germany are the reigning world junior champions, which itself should make our team’s performance praiseworthy.
But if one looks at the larger picture: preparing for the 2013 Junior World Cup to be held in India, then one must say that the Sultan of Johor Cup was a hugely rewarding experience for the team, in terms of knowing where the team stands on the world stage. Surely, the team’s resounding performance in Malaysia should also give the team management a fair idea of what their strengths and weaknesses are and accordingly chalk up their strategies ahead of the marquee event next year.
No wonder, national junior hockey coach Baljit Singh Saini is on cloud nine. “I’m proud of my boys. They dished out an excellent brand of hockey throughout the tournament. A runners-up finish augurs well for the team ahead of the 2013 Junior World Cup,” he told Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview.
The 36-year-old former fullback and midfielder, who played in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as well as the 2000 Sydney Olympics, believes his side put up a brave show in the final and was unlucky to settle for a second-best finish. “We were the only unbeaten team going into the final. We played attacking, free-flowing hockey in the final but our inability to make the most of set-pieces cost us dearly,” he observed.
To buttress his point, Saini said, “Germany earned five penalty corners in the final tie and converted two of them, while we couldn’t convert any. According to me, that was the clinching difference between the two teams. It was a hard-fought contest.”
Saini, who took part in the 1998 and 2002 World Cup, feels that India’s performance in the final was better than they had put on display in their league game against the same opponents. “I would even say that India’s final game performance was much better than their performance against Germany in the league tie. Yes, the scoreline (India won 3-1 in the league, but lost 2-3 in the final) may not reflect that, but that’s how it is,” he puts things in perspective.
India finished fourth in the inaugural edition last year, losing 3-4 to South Korea and thus have significantly improved on that. So, what could have been the secret of the team’s impressive run in Johor Bahru? “It’s not just about playing good hockey for 70 minutes and employing the right strategies. A lot of hard work has gone in off the turf as well. We have watched many videos of the Pakistan and Malaysian junior teams. As for the Australian team, senior chief coach Michael Nobbs has given the boys some tips about how to play them. All the behind-the-scenes activities and attacking hockey have played a part in our team’s stellar performance,” he quipped.
There are always seeds of doubts about whether the top teams really fielded their full strength sides in the tournament, as many teams may not like to expose their strengths given the World Cup is only some months away. Saini brushed aside such thoughts. “I don’t think any team came with a second-string outfit. I have been regularly talking to coaches of Australia, Germany and other teams. We have breakfast together at the hotel in the morning. I was given to understand that all these teams have been practicing with the same bunch of boys for a year. Even we did not play our full strength side as well,” he remarked.