Before the Indian men's hockey team's bronze medal playoff against Japan, Sardar Singh gave a succinct summation of their performance: They improved as the tournament progressed, but they need to win as they improve. A win in the bronze medal playoff means the improvement bore tangible results.
The team, of as many as ten debutants at the senior level, couldn't win enough games (three wins, three draws and one defeat) to make the final. On Wednesday, though, the second-string Indian team were the deserving winners against Japan, thanks to a solitary goal from Raj Kumar Pal.
The question of depth in Indian hockey has been answered with a firm positive at this tournament. But what/who else stood out? And what didn't work for the team?
Re-emergence of SV Sunil
Sunil was one of the two 'veterans' in the team, the other being captain Birendra Lakra. He had announced his retirement from the game (in the longer format, was open to play in the 5s) in 2021 and wasn't part of the team which won Olympic bronze in Tokyo. Now, India didn't have a lot riding on the Asia Cup because they had already made it to the 2023 World Cup by virtue of being the hosts. The selectors wanted to try youngsters, but they also needed experienced players around them: which is what got them to call up retirees Sunil, Lakra, and before an injury ruled him out, Rupinder Pal Singh.
The youngsters impressed to a man, but Sunil was the player of the tournament for India.
Both Sunil and Indian had a slow start, drawing Pakistan in the opener and losing to Japan in the next, but things changed after that. When India had to beat Indonesia by 15 goals to qualify for the Super 4s, Sunil's attacking prowess pushed the team to get 16. His quick movement on the right flank along with his dribbling caused all sorts of problems through the tournament and it translated into goals too: Two versus Indonesia and a sensational finish from a tight angle against Malaysia in a Super 4 match. That goal had made it 2-2 for India, capping a superb comeback after they had gone 0-2 down.
Back when he announced his retirement, Sunil had tweeted: "My body says I can still do it, my heart says go for it, but my mind says: Time to take a break." There's no doubt his body and heart are still good for hockey and now that it appears his mind is too, it may yet get him into the senior squad again.
Goals, plenty of them
16 against Indonesia. Three against Malaysia. Four against South Korea. Even against Pakistan, which they drew 1-1, India created a good number of chances.
Sunil, Pawan Rajbhar, Abharan Sudev, Uttam Singh and S Karthi impressed with their work-rate high up the pitch and goal-scoring form. It was not a one-dimensional attack and neither did the team rely heavily on penalty corners. They worked hard to create and their finishing matched it more often than not.
Pawan can score goals, but his pressing and ability to create chances for teammates stood out, while Uttam's deft stickwork made quite an impact. Both are serious contenders for the regular senior team.
It looked like the tournament would be a failure for India and their coaching staff after the 5-2 defeat against Japan. Going by the chances created, they ought to have won against Pakistan, but they didn't and then came this.
This team hadn't played together as a unit before, so it was a tough task for coaches Sardar and BJ Kariappa too. After the morale-boosting win against Indonesia, the team produced a solid tactical win over Japan. In their previous match against the same opponents, India hardly pressed or created chances.
They were a completely different side in the Super 4 re-match, (as well as the bronze medal match) where they controlled the proceedings. Sardar spoke about changing the tactics, going for man-to-man pressing, which made it difficult for Japan to play their natural high-intensity game.
Where could've India have done better, though?
Defence and discipline
Despite a poor start, India had a good chance to make it to the final. After winning their opening match in the Super 4 stage, they conceded seven goals in the two matches against Malaysia (3-3) and South Korea (4-4). Against South Korea, the equation was simple: Win and make the final. But they lost the lead twice.
Malaysia's biggest strength has been Razie Rahim's penalty corner conversions. But India couldn't avoid conceding PCs and Rahim scored thrice in the match.
(India did, though, make amends defensively in the bronze medal playoff -- Captain Birendra Lakra's performance fetched him the player of the match award.)
Another problem which India faced regularly was their players being shown green and yellow cards during crucial situations. In the group stage match against Japan, India lost two men in the final quarter, which allowed their opponents to dominate and score twice. Against South Korea, India were leading 3-2 but went to 10-men following a green card to Uttam and their opponents took advantage to draw level. It happened again when India were leading 4-3 and Yashdeep Siwach got a yellow, and South Korea equalised.
The trend was also seen on Wednesday against Japan, when Pawan and Manjeet were shown green and yellow cards respectively in the fourth quarter, but this time India managed to hold on to their lead.