India's campaign to retain the Junior Hockey World Cup title they won in 2016 might have ended a couple of days ago but their hopes of at least returning with a podium finish too were dashed as they lost the bronze medal match to France on Sunday. Having already lost to the same team in their first match of the competition - an encounter they had been expected to win -- India might have thought they could salvage some pride, but a 1-3 loss and a 3-3 win loss record in the tournament suggests there are more questions than answers for coach Graham Reid, who would have wanted to use this tournament to identify the next generation of the senior national team.
Result worse than it looks
While a fourth place finish at a World Cup isn't a bad return on paper - it's India's second-best finish at a World Cup in a decade and a half, a closer look at the circumstances of the result don't paint as flattering a picture. Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the tournament was already missing three top teams - Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain - which made India's path relatively easy. Even in this weakened field, India could rarely stamp their authority. Apart from a hard fought 1-0 victory over Belgium - a match in which India were on the wrong half of every single statistic but for penalty corner conversion, India's only wins in the competition came against Poland and Canada, teams that would go on to finish 12th and 13th respectively in a 16-team tournament.
Failure to learn from mistakes
When they went into their bronze medal match against France, India had the chance to overturn an opening day loss and also prove they could learn from the mistakes they had committed in that match. India had been error-prone, missing traps and interceptions, while their forwards were guilty of keeping the ball for too long. It seemed as if there was no real improvement in the team the second time around too.
Indeed, there were areas where it seemed the team had stagnated, while France appeared to have got better - especially in the way the French defense tightened so much that the Indians could rarely counter at will in the way they had in the first match. And while India might have blamed bad luck for that first-day defeat - with two shots going off the goalpost, it was the French who might have felt they could have scored more on Sunday. On two occasions, they found the back of the net only for the goal to be disallowed, while another hard shot that could have made it 4-1 with about four minutes to go ricocheted off the goalpost.
Lack of team work
Over the last couple of games, it appeared that the Indian forwards were guilty of focusing more on individual glory than on the team's hopes. While Sudeep Chirmako scored a stylish reverse scoop over the keeper to bring India back in the contest, that bit of brilliance couldn't blur the fact that there were few scoring chances overall. In the bronze medal match against France, India made 26 circle entries - four more than their opponents. However, while France earned nine penalty corners in the match - scoring off three of them, India earned just three - all of which were blocked. This situation wasn't unfolding for the first time in the tournament.
While India produced many individual moments of magic, there wasn't much by way of teamwork. After the match, Indian captain Vivek Prasad said the players would have to work on their individual game. This was in contrast to France's captain Timothee Clement, who despite being the standout performer of his team - he would be named Player of the Tournament - would speak on the team's performance. "It was very important to finish like this. We have a bronze medal. This team is perfect. The future generation is here and I think we have a really, really great future!"
No plan B
There will likely be some sort of analysis why the Indian team, despite some standout individual performances across the field, couldn't put together a single team performance that ticked all the boxes over the course of the tournament. One factor will probably be the fact that despite training together for the last couple of years, the Indian team didn't get any match practice owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of the Indian junior team's success in the 2016 edition of the World Cup was due to the impact the Hockey India League had on the younger players.
Every member of that junior squad had played with and learned from senior international players in their squads. That experience paid off when they were under high-pressure situations. With the freezing of the HIL in 2018, that learning has disappeared too. This inexperience has shown through at the Junior World Cup. Whenever the Indian squad was put under pressure, they have buckled. More troubling as in the case against France in the bronze medal match, the team has been unable to come up with alternatives when their counterattack game is blocked. As this batch of juniors progresses to the senior ranks, Indian coach Graham Reid will have plenty of thinking to do in order in order to adapt their individual skills with the style the national team plays.