On Sunday night, after the conclusion of the Champions Trophy, Indian hockey coach Harendra Singh had the difficult task of finding a way to pick up the 18 players in front of him. India had unexpectedly dominated Australia in the final, but they ultimately lost on penalties. There would be no commiserations. What the 18 sullen faces at a hotel in Breda got instead was a bit of tough love. "You got exactly the medal you deserved," Harendra told them.
"Everyone understood that Australia didn't win the gold, we gave it to them. We had only ourselves to blame. I told them there wasn't any point crying now. We got the medal that we deserved. We had to do more and now we have two further chances this year (Asian Games and World Cup) of improving on the color of medal we won. But it was a teaching moment for us. The team knew they couldn't leave things to shootouts next time," he says.
There were plenty of positives to take away from the tournament. Beating Pakistan and Olympic champions Argentina; the draw against Olympic silver medalists Belgium. The key to India's impressive run had been a defensive strength unseen in recent years. The seven goals they conceded were the joint lowest of any side in the tournament.
"Our entire team was part of the defensive effort and then the counter," says Harendra who was appointed coach after a disjointed side had finished fourth at the Commonwealth Games. "It wasn't just Sreejesh who was defending. He can make maybe one great save, but the rebound was cleared and passed back immediately to the strikers."
Harendra had laid down a rule for the side - anytime a turnover is conceded, the entire squad has to win the ball back within a fixed time. "The exact time is a secret but the eleven players on the field have to do whatever it takes to break the opposition's movement in that time. So we didn't have strikers thinking that they are strikers. [Strikers] Dilpreet and Simranjit were coming inside the circle and tackling the other team's attackers."
The converse is also true. If the strikers can come back to the defense, the defenders have to support the attackers too. "I want them inside the oppositions half. They have to think 'my brother is in trouble and I need to help him'. We had that too. Birender Lakra, Amit Rohidas, Germanpreet all were part of attacks and entered the oppositions circle too," he says.
"Ultimately we scored just around 20 percent of our PCs. You can't win tournaments with that number" Harendra Singh
The seamless flow between defense and counter resulted in a high press game that troubled every team in the competition. For Harendra this had always been the plan. "We have to play a high press game. Our mindset has to be that we have to dictate terms. India cannot have a defensive mindset. We can't fall into the other team's trap and play their game. I've told the players that the ball is a bomb ka gola (Grenade). We have to keep the ball in the opposition's side," he says.
It has helped he says that his squad has bought into his vision. "Vivek Prasad is only 18 but he was coming in front of a 6 foot four defender from Netherlands and asking for the ball. That is what I want as a coach," he says.
Prasad's confidence is common to other young players in the squad too. It's a noticeable improvement from the Commonwealth Games, where the youngsters seemed confused and unable to adapt to the big stage. Harendra previously led a number of players in the current senior national team to victory in the 2016 junior world cup. "The important thing in dealing with young athletes is knowing how much they can take," he says.
"I've seen these guys since they were kids so I know that level for them. You want them to take responsibility but you can't criticize them all the time. If they have ten tasks to do and they can't manage three, it's not a problem. Of course if they make a mistake and that costs the team a goal it will really hurt their confidence. But if you have someone covering for them, they will not lose that confidence. That's why we need to have a group of senior players in the team. There needs to be someone who can take the pressure and cover when a mistake happens."
Despite all the improvements in team composition, confidence, desire and cohesiveness, coach Harendra will still look at the side's silver medal and admit there is something lacking. "Ultimately we scored just around 20 percent of our PCs," he says. "You can't win tournaments with that number. At the end of the day, we still fell short against Australia."