Cedric D’Souza stood at the corner of the turf at the Homebush Stadium, the venue of the Hockey World Cup. It's 1994, 26 November to be exact. For Cedric, it was his first assignment as India’s national hockey coach. He is pacing up and down like a caged animal, just off the corner flag, in the space between the wire fence and the touch line. It’s a stretch of less than a few metres as he takes four to five steps and then back again. He has been doing this for almost ten minutes.
In the shadow of the setting sun, across the sky-line of Sydney, the Indian team trains. A day back they lost to Holland 2-4; a match many critics, experts and commentators dubbed ‘pacy, intelligent’ and ‘unlucky’ that India didn’t walk off with at least a draw. Cedric is like a tuning fork. Yet there is a cloud of sullen silence over him. Suddenly, he looks up, walks over hurriedly. “You need quotes,” he asks, eyes like little powder kegs. “We will beat South Africa in the next match. We have to.” India drew 2-2 with South Africa.
Twenty-two years later, not much has changed. He is still wired, high strung; probably hooked up to an electric sub-station. He is thin, wiry but beneath the cap, a pony tail peeks out. The face may be slightly weather beaten but the demeanor is still tense, impatient and restless. At The Grand in New Delhi, he opens the door and says, “We have 30 minutes. But we will have to move in 20. I need to go for team training.” Yet he makes tea.
Now he is stationed in Vienna, hoping that a four-year contract is good enough to make the Austrian national hockey team qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. And he is also the coach of the Delhi Waveriders in the Hockey India League. Sheets of team formation and zonal markings have been taped across the front wall of his room at the five-star hotel. He is looking at them absent-mindedly as he stirs sugar in the tea. Not that absent-mindedly.
“The pace has surely picked up,” Cedric says. “But tactically we still play around with the same formations. In '94, I remember playing sometimes with a lone forward upfront (Edward Aranha) and it paid off. The strikers were good. We had Dhanraj Pillay, Mukesh Kumar, Sabu Varkey, Gavin Ferreira.” Comparing them with the present lot, Cedric feels those in the Junior World Cup were excellent. “Things have improved greatly,” he says. “Everyone in the top six is worried about India. They know the team is improving constantly and is now a real threat. Honestly, the Indian team is looking good.”
Watching him, you do sometimes feel that after 22 years of top-level coaching, the fire might have dimmed, the persona would have softened but the words still come out like being fired from an AK-47. The brash, arrogant Cedric might be a thing of the past. But the confidence is still sky-high as is his fidelity for the Indian national team. Many may have forgotten but he was the coach of the 1989-90 Mumbai team that won the national hockey title in Gwalior beating a strong Punjab side in the final with a packed 35,000-strong crowd supporting the Mumbai team.
Back in 1996, just before taking the team to the Atlanta Olympics, Cedric had implored the then Indian Hockey Federation under KPS Gill to give the national team around 15 matches in Europe. But it never materialized. Finances were a mess back then. Finding sponsors was like growing tropical fruit in Alaska. Cedric is, however, happy that what many believed then is happening now and the national team has benefitted from regularly playing the big teams.
“The fear psychosis is over,” he says. “The unknown in world hockey when we played big teams with too many gaps in between is a thing of the past. We now beat them in Europe.” He points to the silver medal finish in the Champions Trophy in 2016 London as an example. “Wasn’t that a brilliant final,” he asks, his face lit up like a neon sign.
Cedric believes that more than anything the Hockey India League is a boon. “I believe in it hundred percent,” he says. “The cream is playing here. All the big names are here and our juniors are here too.”
But the reason that the former Indian national coach believes that Indian hockey can cross the imaginary line between being an also-ran team to hitting the top four is when you lift a World Cup and according to Cedric, the juniors have done that. “These players are brimming with confidence,” he says. “Look at Harjeet (Singh) and the way he changes the pace of a game, understanding the positions and creating moves. It will take some time for them mature but the crop is there. We need to tend to them.”
In between, Cedric answers phones and directs his supporting staff to ensure that the goalkeepers get an extra hour of training. “Just do it,” he orders. In a four-quarter encounter, it’s all about game changers and how a player or many players can lead a match. “I believe a team needs to have leaders,” he explains. “The captain is an arm-band but players can lead with the kind of match situations they can create. Look at Manpreet (Singh) and how he can change the complexion of the match with an accurate run down the middle. The boy has oomph.”
In the Rio Olympics, Manpreet was given the midfield position while Sardar Singh was pushed into a forward’s role. With a shot of skill, sudden acceleration and a slap shot that landed on a forward’s stick, Manpreet put the fear of the devil into opponent’s midfield and defence zones.
Cedric gives a lot of credit to PR Sreejesh, the Indian captain and in reality, the ‘last line’ of defence, the goalkeeper. “Look at the way he helped the junior India goalkeeper at the World Cup. His enthusiasm is infectious and he keeps pushing every player. More than that, you can rely on him to bring India out of a sticky corner. It’s because of his proficiency as a goalkeeper that defenders like Rupinder Pal Singh and Harmanpreet have raised their game.”
To a coach like Cedric, it’s imperative that one asks about the India vs Belgium match in the quarter-finals of the Rio Olympics. Was it bad tactics in the third and fourth quarter? Or was Belgium good on the day in beating India 3-1? Cedric sinks into the chair slightly, opens a bottle of water and takes a sip. “You know what,” he says. “If the result was the other way around, everybody would have praised (Roelant) Oltmans and a gamble would have paid off. It didn’t click, whatever Oltmans thought would. And quick goals put us under pressure.”
“It’s about decisions in key moments,” continues Cedric. “It’s about the players also. Reaction time in adapting is also critical.” It’s a typical coaches’ answer. It’s a classic Cedric reply. Rarely will he criticize another coach.
He does praise the Indian junior coach Harendra Singh. “The way he handled pressure was excellent,” says Cedric. “I also think the Indian junior team was vastly superior. They were good enough to beat anybody and for that all credit goes to just one man, Harendra Singh.”
In his four seasons as Delhi Waveriders coach, Cedric has won the title once, secured two third-place finishes and this year finished a disappointing fourth. “We did try our best but the plans didn’t really work out,” he explains. “We gave too much space and just when it seemed it will all come back, the structure used to crumble.”
Cedric doesn’t give up too easily. Wins and losses could be stacked in two separate columns, a statistician’s delight. In Atlanta '96, he came quite close to taking India to an Olympic semi-final before as he would describe ‘it all crumbled.’ Desire has propelled him all these years as a coach. Maybe in three years, he might deliver the shock of taking the Austrian national team to the Olympics. It’s a long shot. For Cedric, it won’t be for a lack of trying.
Updated Date: Mar 02, 2017 12:23 PM