Indian juniors soak up win, aim for bigger stage

Tom Dulat/Getty Images

Poor Fabrice Von Bockrijcke. The Belgian had the last touch of the 2016 Junior Hockey World Cup. His drag flick was perhaps the most inconsequential of the tournament too. 2-0 the scorecard read on the two electronic screens on either end of the pitch at the Dhyan Chand Stadium in Lucknow.

The 20,000 spectators who had crammed standing into the arena built to hold far less were already shieking. The members of the Indian team who didn't have to put on the plastic face guards were already linking arms. A large tricolour had already been procured. The team had probably brought their own, though they could have had their pick from the hundred being waved furiously in the stands.

The tall Belgian shot high into the net. 2-1 the giant screen now read. Near the halfway line, Armaan Qureshi sank to his knees and pressed his sweaty forehead on to the plastic grass. Fifteen years after an Indian team had won the junior hockey World Cup, another set of youngsters had replicated the feat.

Here are a few takeaways from Sunday night's performance:

Moving up

The 2001 team included Arjun Halappa, Viren Rasquinha, Gagan Ajit Singh and Jugraj Singh, who would graduate to become fixtures in the senior team. Who is to say Armaan, Parvinder Singh, captain Harjeet Singh and Harmanpreet Singh won't go on to do the same as they held the big gold trophy - now a bit jaded with age -- and jumped ecstatically to exploding fireworks. Harjeet surely believes it. "This isn't the end for this team. We are going to be winning a lot more in the future too," he said afterwards.

Improved fitness, steady growth

In hindsight, it might be said that anything less than gold would have been an underperformance by this team. Roughly this same group had been together for the past two and a half years. "I told them back then that they would win the world cup gold," coach Harendra Singh said. Progress was constant. They had returned with a silver at the 2015 Sultan of Johor tournament and won gold earlier this year at the Four Nations tournament by beating Germany (who would be bronze medalists at the Junior World Cup).

They had ironed out the kinks that had bedeviled teams of the past. Under trainer, and now high performance director David John, the team was scarcely recognizable from the lot who would struggle to last the duration of the contest. You got a clue of the strictness of their regime from goalkeeper Krishan Pathak's answer to how they would celebrate the win.

"We are going to eat a lot. We haven't eaten for two years!" That improved fitness saw them running nine kilometers or more in Lucknow. Not sedate jogs mind you. These kilometers were hard sprints that saw them pressing hard in both the semifinals against Australia and the finals against Belgium, ready to counter. Opponents were worn down by the sheer relentlessness of it.

Belgium crowded out

Belgium, who had been so methodical in their structure throughout the tournament, were undone in a manner the scoreline does very little to represent. Perhaps a word for the crowd here too. If the Belgians seemingly hit a wall, it was one of sound. "The chaos didn't help up but we pride ourselves on our ability to handle chaos. Our boys didn't handle the crowd too well at the start," said the Belgian coach Jeroen Baart.

"It was very difficult to communicate. We were indicating with our arms which press we were going to play, our strikers were whistling to be heard," exclaimed captain Victor Wegnez. The noise evoked a feeling of dread - think the theme music of Jaws. "Everytime we heard the crowd cheering, we knew India were on the attack," Wegnez remarked.

"Perfect hockey"

The crowd was cheering almost throughout the first half. The usually grim-faced chief coach, Roelant Oltmans, would grin and say it was the closest he had seen to "perfect hockey." The high press early on earned two penalty corners both unconverted - if there is one quibble from this tournament, that has to be it. The Belgians tried to flood the Indians in their half and the latter found paths through it. They found ways over it too.

Varun Kumar, simply lofted the ball over the heads of a suddenly wobbly defence. Gurjant Singh collected, turned and reverse flicked off a near zero angle. Even Belgium's Loic van Doren - the goalkeeper of the tournament - was helpless. Two other near chances were obtained but Nilkanta Sharma shot wide from point blank and both Mandeep Singh and Parvinder failed to get a deflection into an open goalmouth.

Even as Belgium tried to recover, Simranjeet Singh stole a ball, then received it back and reverse hit it low to van Doren's right. The attack was flowing-the ball being smoothly passed around from one stick to another at a high tempo with minimal dribbling. There was a period of play nearly two minutes long beginning at around the 27th minute of the match when the ball didn't make contact with a single stick in the hands of a red shirted player.

Road for the future

India took their foot off the pedal in the second half, but it almost never seemed Belgium had a chance to get back in the game. The referee too seemed to get caught up in how one sided it was - twice failing in quick succession to see a rare Belgian run catch the foot of two Indian defenders. It probably wouldn't have made much difference.

And as coach Harendra Singh said - "the last time we won it was with six goals. This time it was with two. But the trophy we won is the same." It's hard to say what the victory will mean for Indian hockey. A junior World Cup doesn't necessarily carry over to senior success.

While the junior team of 2001 transferred almost en masse to the seniors, they never enjoyed anywhere near the same success. The road ahead for the batch of 2016 is a long one. Harjeet says this team will be looking to make squads for the 2018 Commonwealth and Asian Games and perhaps even the 2020 Olympics. And at least the Junior World Cup is a good starting point. That's certainly what his teammate Simranjeet believes. "The whole world knows that Indian hockey is on the right track," he said.