With no experience with HIL in the CVs, Indian junior hockey players were eager for the big World Cup match

Ric Charlesworth is not a fan of hot pictures. But he knew exactly how Indian hockey turned the corner. That was when, said the pioneering Australian coach, the players ‘realized that international players have only two arms and two legs, just like them.’

“Psychologically, it was an important barrier that needed to be broken,” he said recently. “More than anything else, I think the Indian Hockey League was the catalyst for that.”

The day after India’s defeat by Germany in the World Cup semi-finals seems like a good time to reconsider Charlesworth’s analysis of India’s rise in the world hockey rankings. Namely, two Indian campaigns for the Junior World Cup – 2016 and the ongoing tournament – show how important the Hockey India League (HIL) was in the development of players.

In 2016, when India ended its 15-year wait to become junior world champions, almost all the players on the team had experience playing at HIL, a tournament where they shared a locker room with the world’s best players and coaches.

The year that followed was the last time HIL was held – a hockey success but a commercial failure. Consequently, the bunch of juniors who inherited the 2016 Class did not receive the same level of exposure and experience. They are, in fact, the first group of players without any background of playing in the league and, if nothing else, the last 10 days have highlighted the difference between Indian HIL and post-HIL products.

To be clear, this is not a set of player skills. It is not a defeat in the semifinals either. In fact, for a team like India that came to the tournament without playing a single match for two years due to complications related to Covid, finishing in the top four is commendable.

After all, a junior World Cup doesn’t just mean becoming champions. For most teams, this is an ideal platform to check if their U-21s have it in them to get big. It is also a test of domestic systems and in the process, if they eventually win the title, it is a bonus.

In that sense, regardless of the defeat in the semifinals, Sanjaya Kumara’s moves, Sharda Nand Tiwari’s calm defense, Vishnukanta Singh’s batting skill and Araijeet Singh Handal’s powerful hitting are good for the continuation of Indian hockey.

But the team did not show the level of self-confidence and fearlessness that the generation before them possessed, which played in HIL.

The two games India have played against Germany this year highlight the difference. At the Tokyo Olympics, Germany’s aggressive tactics initially caught India off guard, but they reacted quickly and returned it to them confidently and without any fear. Germany played in a similar way again on Friday. But the foals looked intimidated and entered their armor, never experiencing anything like it.

Strong domestic league

Nothing illustrated the benefits of a strong domestic league from the supply chain of players that India has had in the last eight years.

“It was a turning point for Indian hockey,” says former high-performance director David John. “Birendra Lakra, for example, played with (Australian) Fergus Kavanagh and the two of them were a force. Birendra gained a lot of confidence by playing with someone like Fergus and then he took that form into international hockey. ”

It is no coincidence that some of Lakra’s best years in the national team came when he was at the peak of his form in HIL. The same can be said for captain Manpreet Singh, who said earlier that playing with former German star Moritz Fuerste for a month helped him grow up ‘a few years as a player’.

While Manpreet, Lakra and other members of the national team became better playing in HIL, a whole generation of young players – Surender Kumar, Mandeep Singh, Amit Rohidas and others – felt the taste of playing against foreign players even before they debuted internationally. Also, until the selection to the national team, they had dozens of quality competitive matches behind them.

To ensure ‘the next generation is a strong generation’, Belgian U-21 coach Jeroen Baart, who has been on the junior team since 2015, said tournaments like HIL would be important.

“It was a huge boost for hockey in India. Unfortunately, it has not been there for the last few years. Hopefully this will come back to help these boys perform better, for their ascent to the top. Not just older players, but also younger players, ”Baart said.

Baart understands the importance of a solid domestic structure. So Belgium jumped to the top of the world after it was nowhere near a little over a decade ago.

Playing abroad

Initially, when Belgium did not have a strong league, they sent their players to the Netherlands, which boasts the strongest domestic club competition in the world. This experience helped the national team, and the players shared their knowledge with the locals, with foreign expertise, to develop their own home structure.

Now France, one of the most advanced teams in recent years, is following a similar model. Some of their key players play in the Belgian league, while at the same time the French federation is trying to create its own strong local league.

India’s junior and senior players, who are locked up in the national camp for most of the year, do not play in European leagues. In the last decade, Sardar Singh has been the only active national team player to pursue his profession in Europe. Devendra Walmiki, who played at the Rio Olympics, followed in the footsteps of the former captain. But until then, he was on the sidelines of the national team program.

Hockey India has not set out its policy, if any, on the participation of Indian players in leagues abroad. However, it hinted that HIL could be revived. That will be the key to maintaining the momentum that Indian hockey has chosen right now.

Not only does it continue to produce players who are skilled, which India continues to do, but also fearless. Or to paraphrase Charlesworth, to make them believe that ‘international players have only two arms and two legs, just like them.’

It is played on Sunday

Match for third place, 4.30 pm: India v. France
Finals, 7.30 pm: Argentina v. Germany


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