This piece was published in Sportskeeda
The preparatory tour of the Netherlands for the upcoming FIH Hockey World League Round 3 (semifinals) tournament was a huge learning curve for the Indian senior men’s hockey team.
The team played five games against top Dutch clubs, winning two, losing two and drawing one. The men in blue played two matches against the Netherlands side, winning both the ties 2-0 and 4-2 to cap off a relatively satisfying exposure trip.
No wonder, Indian captain Sardar Singh is pretty chuffed with the way things panned out in the Netherlands. “It was a handy tour for the boys. Our high performance director Roelant Oltmans did all he can to ensure we played against some of the top Dutch clubs. It was a massive learning experience for all the team members, especially for the many youngsters in the side,” he says in an exclusive interview.
The 26 year old, touted as the world’s best midfielder, was rested for the 22nd Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh, Malaysia and seems to be peaking at the right time for the HWL semifinals in Rotterdam. “The tour enabled us to identify our weaknesses and we are going to work hard on ironing them out at our final preparatory camp which begins at the Netaji Subhas Southern Centre (NSSC) in Bengaluru on Thursday. This camp will be vital for all the 33 probables as it will be pruned down at the end of the camp on June 4,” the demure medio quips.
India are clubbed in Pool B in the first FIH Hockey World League Round 3 (semifinals) tournament alongside Olympic silver medallists Netherlands, New Zealand and Ireland. “Look, no team can be taken lightly. Rankings don’t matter much. Netherlands and New Zealand are ranked above us but it doesn’t mean we can’t beat them,” he reasons.
Sardar has a wealth of experience, and has made 169 international appearances for the Blueshirts. He believes staying focus for the whole 70 minutes is imperative. “Modern hockey is all about fast-paced stuff. You can’t let your guard down just because you are leading by a goal or two as your opposition can hit back with goals in seconds or minutes. Sometimes, we have seen teams score twice inside sixty seconds. The success mantra would be to stay alive to the situation for the full duration of the game,” he remarks.
So, what are the areas the Indian team really needs to work on? “Well, we have strengths in a lot of areas but there is always room for improvement. We are focusing a lot on how we should respond when the opposition is in possession of the ball or when we are dispossessed by an opposition player. We are also paying heed on how to maintain possession and keep the ball away from the opposition. Head coach Michael Nobbs is always helping us with his inputs,” he reveals.
Defending penalty corners is another area the team has set their sights on. “Most top nations have drag-flick specialists to score goals for them. So it is really important to stoutly defend short corners as the outcome of a match is often decided by set-pieces,” he says.
There must be also extra motivation for Sardar given the fact that he was recently nominated for the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award. “Playing for the country is the ultimate motivation for a player, but yes, being nominated for the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award makes me feel happy. Recognition of any form spurs you to excel more,” he sounds realistic.
The first FIH Hockey World League Round 3 (semifinals) tournament features top-flight teams like the Netherlands and Germany. So, does India stand a realistic chance of making a podium finish? “No team goes into a tournament thinking they can’t win it. We have a solid team and would give our best shot in Rotterdam. Like I keeping saying, no team is unbeatable and any team can win on any given day,” Sardar signed off.