Have India been as good as their third place in men's hockey at the Tokyo Olympics suggests? Could they have done better overall? Did the 5-4 win against Germany perhaps flatter them a bit for an up-and-down performance in the bronze medal game?
There are no easy answers to those questions, but the bronze medal finish is in keeping with what was expected from this team. They never had it easy, but to see them fulfil that makes one hopeful of where the trajectory of this current crop of Indian players is going. Here are the key reasons behind India's success in Tokyo.
Conditions at the Oi stadium in Tokyo were hot and sappy all through the hockey competition. India playing eight games in the span of 13 days was not unusual in itself, but they did play five of these in the morning sessions, including two of three matches in the knockout stage.
To have lasted the length, literally fighting it out against a fit German team in the final quarter of their campaign, required optimal fitness levels. This has been a consistently improving theme with this Indian team, and much of that credit must go to the coaches that have worked with them over the past Olympics cycle. For the moment, hats off to chief coach Graham Reid, scientific advisor Robin Arkell and the rest of the support staff for having kept the players fresh all through the fortnight.
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The best free-scoring team in a long time
Since Reid took over in 2019, India have built a reputation as a team with goals in them. They always had individual skills, but they have added good penalty corner (PC) conversions and deft deflection skills in recent times.
The numbers bear it out -- India scored 25 goals from eight matches at the Tokyo Games. As goals-per-game averages go, this is the best ever since 1980, when India had 43 from six. That was a depleted field, though, so to put that aside, you would have to go back to 1960 Rome when an Indian team struck more than three goals per game on an average (18 from five then). And they haven't had it easy with the draw here -- New Zealand beat them in the Commonwealth Games semi-finals in 2018, Japan are the reigning Asian Games gold medallists, Spain have been in two Olympic finals over the past 25 years. That left India with Australia, Argentina, Great Britain, Belgium and Germany. India lost only to Australia and Belgium, and scored in both games, even holding a 2-1 lead for a while against world champions Belgium in the semi-finals.
Good team culture
Look around the pictures of the team, and you won't find any overbearing single influence among the players. Yes, the likes of PR Sreejesh, Manpreet Singh, Mandeep Singh and Birendra Lakra have been around for a while, but they don't necessarily carry the aura of some superstars of recent years.
Reid took a gamble with some younger players in the squad to Tokyo -- 12 of the 18 selected, including the alternates were on Olympic debut -- and most delivered on the work rate that he would have picked them for. One of the great examples of backing a workmanlike player who delivered was Amit Rohidas, whose performance as first rusher in the last game was exemplary. Sreejesh was superb, effecting nine saves in all, but Germany found joy just once from 13 PCs, such was Amit's courage in charging right down the first line of attack from Germany's drag-flickers.
Reid also used his alternates well -- Simranjeet Singh and Varun Kumar joined the main squad in successive matches, against Spain and Argentina, respectively, and delivered the opening goals for India. Simranjeet was benched for the semifinal, but returned to the team for the bronze medal match, and made his impact with two top strikes.
Much like other foreign coaches in recent years, Reid has taken the effort to make himself and his family part of the extended team culture. His wife, when she joins him at the camp, has been known to voluntarily take sessions for the players on English speaking and deportment. Reid himself, besides being a reputed coach in hockey, has been brutally honest, whether with his players or the media. That transparency has helped.
Grit and tenacity
If you ignore the Australia defeat, India stayed on course in all games at Tokyo 2020. Even in the semi-final, which they lost 5-2, they came back from a goal down to lead, and only wilted numerically in the final quarter of a pretty solid knockabout.
Getting their wits back about themselves after the Australia result was important, and they showed that in some style with a 3-0 win against Spain, and a 5-3 win against Japan.
Perhaps where India have progressed now under Reid was best exemplified in the two matches they won in the second week of the competition. Against Great Britain, under pressure after allowing the opponent to pull one goal back, they held their nerve despite a glut of cards conceded, and scored a goal on the break to kill it off. On Thursday, they responded magnificently to going two goals down, with an eight-minute four-goal burst either side of half-time completely reversing the momentum of the match.