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Commonwealth Games 2018: India start favourites against Pakistan but Roelant Oltmans-coached rivals can't be taken lightly

On days when training is intensive, Roelant Oltmans can be as sullen as a rain-soaked Labrador. On the best of days, when India win big, his replies have the clarity of a man with a mouth full of ice. The reporter, expectedly, wouldn’t go beyond the first question. And then unexpectedly, he can hold fort, on a random day, on a variety of topics and also explain why he doesn’t like Jose Mourinho. Without digressing, this is what Oltmans thinks of Mourinho: “Talks too much and I have no liking for defensive coaches.”

Maybe, there lies the clue — ‘defensive.’

Sjoerd Marijne is not Oltmans, yet. Oltmans is an Olympic and World Cup-winning coach. The Olympic Gold happened in Atlanta in 1996 and the World Cup gold came in Utrecht, 1998. Marijne is striving to be an Oltmans. Knowing that Marijne would take offence to being labelled or compared to a fellow Dutchman, let me quickly add Marijne would want an Olympic gold or the World Cup but on his own terms, rather as Sjoerd Marijne.

 Commonwealth Games 2018: India start favourites against Pakistan but Roelant Oltmans-coached rivals cant be taken lightly

India's men's hockey team open their campaign against Pakistan on Saturday. Image credit: Twitter/@TheHockeyIndia

Both like offensive hockey. They revel in the first touch. And build teams around youth. Though, Oltmans' 96’ Olympic team had Marc Delissen and Floris Jan Bovelander, not exactly spring chickens then. But coaches love to believe that ‘hockey then was different.’

Would hockey be different on 7 April when India and Pakistan meet at the Gold Coast where tickets for the match were sold out within hours? It was slightly surreal to see Oltmans in a Pakistan jacket merrily speaking about the draw of a Commonwealth Games and saying, smile dancing on his lips, “India is a favourite and by a wide margin.”

Well, he would know that — four wins in 2016 and 2017 came under him when he was Indian coach, two in the Asian Champions Trophy and two in the Hockey World League Semi-Finals in London. He was High Performance Director when Terry Walsh as coach beat Pakistan in the 2014 Asian Games final. So there is a challenge for Sjoerd Marijne when India line up against Pakistan on Saturday.

It would be good for Marijne that Oltmans is already under pressure after Pakistan drew 1-1 with Wales. Not a great start for Oltmans but neither something that would worry Oltmans or Pakistan. A good result against India usually washes away all sins. And vice-versa. Pakistan are rebuilding for the Champions Trophy and then the World Cup in Bhubaneswar and too many adverse results in the last four years need to be halted.

In the circumstances, Oltmans was the hope and he had intimate knowledge of an Indian team, which he built over a period of time. Small details help in such matches which are played in an ocean of emotion. That’s why both coaches would say ‘we focus on the match and not that it’s India vs Pakistan.’ Both know it’s not that easy to take your mind off the fact that a considerable population is interested in the result. The last time that Oltmans enjoyed an India-Pakistan match was on 18 June, 2017 when India beat Pakistan 7-1 in the HWL semi-finals in London. On the same day, a few kilometres away, Fakhar Zaman’s remarkable hundred and Mohammad Amir’s new-ball spell drove Pakistan to a stunning 180 run victory over India in the Champions Trophy final. “There was no tension,” he said later. “The focus was on cricket.”

On the Gold Coast, both coaches area assiduously concentrating on hockey. Marijne took the team to watch Pakistan play Wales and asked the players to analyse and create a tactical plan for their opening match against Pakistan. Oltmans has already shifted the pressure saying India is too far ahead. Marijne said, “I know it sounds boring but it’s about focusing on ourselves. The more I am talking about Pakistan, the more I will make them better and that’s not what we want. The analysis is finished and they are ready to start.”

Marijne believes the team is done waiting. Now they are hungry. They have adapted and are keen to be on the pitch playing a real match. “It's like they are hungry to start, hungry to play, hungry to win and whether it’s against Pakistan or Wales, it doesn’t matter. We just want to start the tournament.”

Pakistan’s biggest issue has been lack of tournaments and big matches. India’s build-up has been impressive. But what many would like to consider a David vs Goliath match-up can sometimes surprise and catch fans and teams off guard. Emotion is a cesspool. India and Pakistan love to swim in it. Its good Marijne keeps the players off it.

“I think there will be always pressure in India and I think that’s fine, good and normal because people want to see us winning,” he says. “Of course, the match against Pakistan is really big and we also respect that for players and me. So for us, it's important to focus on our own performance and that's what we learn because the moment we get emotional, it gets more difficult and we want to stay away from that.”

On the contrary, Oltmans would build the structure in a team that has been without a framework for long. He exactly knows how India play. That should make it interesting. From how India's defence minds work to the creative engine in the team and the way the scorers operate, Oltmans has been the man creating the blue-print for long. Now, all he needs to do is print and show it to the Pakistan team, formulate a strategy and dangle it.

Baiting India would lessen Pakistan’s workload. Otherwise, Marijne’s team would run them ragged — pace, skills, overlapping, technical superiority, penalty corner drills, you say it and India does it better. What they don’t like is when the flow is stemmed and the opposition doesn’t let them play their natural game. Oltmans will put up barriers. After all, he knows the little chinks in India's mind.

In the end, like any sport, hockey, is about winning, scoring goals. But in its modern phase, tactical awareness and the definition of positioning has changed making the Coach vs Coach battle all that more intriguing. That’s why along with players in modern football, a Jurgen Klopp vs Pep Guardiola, an Antonio Conte vs Mauricio Pochettino, a Jose Mourinho vs Arsene Wenger catch the fans imagination and make it all the more iconic.

Coaches always want to leave an indelible mark on the match and an overall impact on the team. Marijne knows his team, India, are the favourites. “Of course, we are favourites. Last year we won four times from them (Pakistan) and that’s why we are favourites. That’s okay and normal. It’s not in our head; we don’t play different because of that. We are also favourite against Wales and we will have more matches where we are favourite so that's fine.”

Sjoerd Marijne, the young wolf has the understanding of the terrain and a team of young cubs all ready to unleash damage. But in the jungle, they say, never lose respect for the old fox. Behind Roelant Oltmans' disarming smile and reticence, a wild hockey mind lurks.

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Updated Date: Apr 06, 2018 19:17:19 IST