Amidst the dark clouds rolling in from the East, trucks driving in with hospitality equipment, beer and food stalls being set up — such an integral part of Dutch hockey — the main and second pitch are also seeing signs of frenetic activity. On the main pitch, Pakistan assistant coach Rehan Butt is screaming at someone: “Roelant bula raha hai” (Roelant is calling for you). The concerned team support staff is seen hurrying down the stadium steps. Just for the record, Rehan Butt was the main tormentor at the 2002 Champions Trophy bronze medal match where India seemed to be cruising at 3-1 in the end half before Rehan created magic with an equaliser and then the stunning match-winner.
On pitch 2, there are no stands. Hundred metres to the right and left, dense foliage provides a stunning backdrop. India, after a brief warm-up, are focusing on penalty corners (PC). Coach Harendra Singh and former Aussie superstar Chris Ciriello are doing direct and indirect sessions. There is a feeling that PCs would come India’s way. Traditionally it has, except against opponents like Germany who play extremely tight, masters of the striking circle zone where they defend even inches of space like seasoned property sharks.
Since Roelant Oltmans crossed the border, there is a feeling that Pakistan have found a semblance of structure. In the past two years, apart from few close games, the gap was widening as India dominated. But at the Commonwealth Games, even after taking a 2-0 lead, Pakistan came back and got the equaliser with hardly ten seconds left.
The 2-2 scoreline was a defeat for India and the repercussions of that match were felt through the tournament. Pakistan impressed, refused to break their line and were never in disarray, despite a scoreline against them. Oltmans had succeeded in getting into their minds. It’s no state secret that Pakistan hired him simply to stop the huge gap developing between them and India; the other teams would come later. In a year of the Asian Games, it was important to run India close.
Oltmans looks bedraggled. He has just finished an intensive training session with Pakistan. At 64, he has already invested 40 years into the sport. But the enthusiasm is intact; he is still the kid loving every moment, talking to the players, laughing and back slapping them. Pakistan players look relaxed and happy. But they are wary of him too. There is immense respect for a coach who already has a World Championship Gold (1998 Utrecht) and an Olympic Gold (1996 Atlanta) to his name as coach. Not to mention the 1994 World Championship silver when Pakistan beat Holland at Sydney. He looks forward to the opening match against India.
“I know it’s a sentimental issue,” he says, head shaking. “I have seen it from your (India) side too, and now again, I am seeing it from here. But there is a tournament too. More matches where we have to improve as a team.”
When India were beating Pakistan regularly with margins of six plus, Oltmans had always spoken about the lack of structure in the Pakistan side. “We have worked on those deficiencies,” he explains. “But apart from that we have brought in tactical awareness and a higher fitness regime.”
A fitter Pakistan team can last longer, conserving energy through each quarter. Earlier, India would explode out of the blocks like an Olympic sprinter, stretch Pakistan, score few goals and then slowly take them apart. Pakistan didn’t lack skill; they lacked staying power and mentally withered away. Not anymore.
For the last month, they have stationed themselves in Holland, playing local matches at the Leiden Hockey Club. There is quiet confidence. And they believe Oltmans would have enough inner knowledge of the Indians to somehow crack them open.
Harendra Singh has lost weight. He looks fit, trim and exudes that earthy confidence that sets him apart from the other Indian coaches. He has been at this game for a long time, learning every step of the way. “Why do we only think that Oltmans had knowledge of the Indian team,” he asks. “All the 18 players who played under him also have knowledge on how Oltmans works and which way his mind ticks. Isn’t that to our advantage?”
Speaking on PCs, Harendra feels that anything between 28 and 32 per cent should do the trick. “Teams that convert 35 percent of the chances have a good shot at winning.” He says. “It’s not something that changes overnight. But we are reaching there.”
India have Ciriello on their bench, the Aussie who smacked home a hat-trick in the 2014 World Cup final, smashing the Dutch 6-1 in front of their despondent fans. Harendra is relying on Ciriello to deliver in terms of angles and tactics.
Oltmans has brought in Bram Lomans, the man with two Olympic gold and World Championship gold medals. Lomans was the star when Spain led 2-0 in the 98’ World Cup final and the Dutchman, with an immaculate flick, tied the scores at 2-2 before Holland clinched it in extra time. Oltmans is guarded about Lomans training sessions with Pakistan. “Everything takes time,” he says. “It’s never about suddenly firing. That is an area where it will take more than just a few sessions.”
Oltmans is clear that the Champions Trophy is merely a stepping stone towards the Asian Games. For Pakistan’s Dutch coach, Asian Games gold is the target. “Of course, we want to win at the Champions Trophy but the target is the Asian Games,” he explains. “Qualifying for the 2020 Olympics is priority.”
In 31 editions, Pakistan have played 177 matches in the Champions Trophy, winning 78 and losing 70. Both play their 19th match in the Champions Trophy today with India winning six and losing 12. In their last meeting at the Bhubaneswar 2014 CT, Pakistan won 4-3.
SV Sunil, whose pace and speed will be a handful against Pakistan, believes numbers are okay as pieces of stats as they are insightful but once the match begins, it simply comes down to performance. “I think the main focus is on playing as a unit,” he says. “In the six weeks of training, we have seen the mistakes that happened in Gold Coast. And as a unit, we have to ensure that the forwards, midfield and defenders come into the match as one team.”
Sunil isn’t perturbed on seeing Oltmans on the other side. He does agree that Oltmans will bring something to the table for Pakistan. “Obviously, he knows us in and out,” explains Sunil. “But it will be a good challenge and a good match.”
Both teams have finished training. As India file out, Oltmans walks in from the other direction. He smiles at a few players, has a word with a few and then pats Sardar on the back, has a short conversation, laughs throwing his head back and walks away.
In matches against Pakistan, there is always an extra dimension of history and politics. On the pitch, it’s not just skills, artistry, stubbornness, determination that sets both these teams apart. It’s also the baggage that they carry. Victory is a release, while a defeat at the hands of arch-rivals affects the mind, and rest of the tournament. At the moment, when the sun rises over Breda, Harendra will be hoping that his team has the ability to deliver the sucker-punch.
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Updated Date: Jun 23, 2018 13:53:41 IST