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India struggles as others dribble past in hockey

January 16, 2014

NEW DELHI (AP) — Attempts to make India a world hub for field hockey and revive the country’s flagging standing in the sport are proving to be a damp squib if the new FIH league is anything to go by.

Top teams have been playing the inaugural Hockey World League finals over the past week to sparse galleries and to the disappointment of fans who have realized that the national team, once a global giant, no longer belongs at the top level.

Ensured of making the quarterfinals since the tournament comprises only eight teams, India was thrashed 7-2 by world champion Australia on Wednesday.

India is now ranked only No. 10 and was included as a host, but playing top teams has exposed the widening divide in recent years.

“We have to understand the difference in level between India and some of these teams,” India’s Australian coach Terry Walsh conceded. “I frankly don’t know how long it will take (to compete against the best). It may take several months of steady progress.”

If the present looks bleak, the future does not look very bright either. The Junior World Cup was also held here last year but the Indian team only finished 10th, raising questions about the chances of it ever making it back to the top. Teams like France and Malaysia — not among hockey’s traditional powers — were far more impressive.

Australia coach Ric Charlesworth feels senior India players lack the fundamentals to be successful at the top level.

“What India needs is to build a base and develop a program for a production line that prepares players who are first-team ready.” Charlesworth told The Hindu newspaper. “Until that happens, you can’t get consistent results. It is also hard for players in the senior team to learn things that they should have done at an earlier level.”

India has had a glorious past in the game but the last of its eight Olympic gold medals came in 1980 and it has struggled to even qualify for the Games in recent years. It started losing ground with the advent of synthetic turfs as far back as in the 1970s.

India failed to make it to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and finished last at London four years later.

It has not beaten teams like Australia, Germany, Netherlands and Spain since 2010 and the likes of England, Belgium and New Zealand too have a clear edge over India now.

Several top coaches in the business have failed to lift the team’s performance and the country’s administrators too have been divided with the earlier Indian Hockey Federation being superseded by the ruling Hockey India which has been recognized by FIH since 2009.

The new league joins several other hockey events which India is to host in coming years. Aside from its own annual franchise-based Hockey India League later this month, there is the Champions Trophy in December and the World Cup in 2018. India had also hosted the World Cup in 2010.

The semifinals of the ongoing league will see Australia play Netherlands and England take on New Zealand on Friday with the final slated for Saturday, even as Indian players like Sardar Singh and Yuvraj Walmiki will try to keep interest alive for local supporters in games for minor placing.

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