Hockey Asia Cup 2017: No room for pressure in India-Pakistan clash, coach Sjoerd Marijne insists on keeping it tactical

There is a buzz around Maulana Bhashani Stadium in Dhaka. And it's getting louder. Suddenly, there is extra security around the stadium. Even in the press box, policemen sit with guns. No teams have had a pre-match press conference until now — that honour now belongs to India and Pakistan. Tickets are being distributed to journalists to be given to friends and relatives. It's the match to be seen at. In Dhaka, at least among the hockey and sports fraternity, it's a must watch game.

At the press conference, Pakistan captain Muhammad Irfan was asked about the 1985 Asia Cup final when Pakistan beat India 3-2. Irfan appeared clueless. He whispered to assistant coach Muhammad Sarwar, who captained the Pakistan side in 2003. But Sarwar had no clue either. But here in Dhaka, the people remember; even the memories have refused to fade away; they still cling to the walls of the stadium, though astro-turf has long replaced grass at the arena. The romance of an India-Pakistan clash is being devoured by Bangladesh.

The Indian team trains under the watchful eyes of new coach Sjoerd Marijne. The Dutchman is the opposite of what the quote seeking media wants. At the press conference, Marijne doesn't take the bait offered by the Bangladesh media. "This is your first India-Pakistan match as coach. Are you under pressure?" they ask him. The Indian coach has a sullen way of answering. "It's just another match for me. It's a process and we are looking to play a certain way. Yes, it's an honour to be the coach during an India-Pak match," he replies. Marijne will not be pressured into answering in a certain way.

Sarwar, who has played quite a few India-Pak matches, including the 2003 Test series, spoke about awaam and haar-jeet. "People in both countries don't like losing and I hope it's a good match. If we don't miss our chances, it will be a close game," he said.

Certainly a few more words would be added to give an extra twist to the drama that is unfolding before every hockey lover here. For Pakistan, captain Irfan is the voice of reason. "India have been playing more hockey than us and have got the right exposure," he explains to a journalist who asked him what the scoreline could be, and if Pakistan can rectify their mistakes in time for Sunday's match.

"India play fast and has a good defence as well. So, we will try and play to our potential and ensure that the boys play above theirs," he said.

India's new coach Sjoerd Marijne. Firstpost/Neeraj Tiwari

India's new coach Sjoerd Marijne. Firstpost/Neeraj Tiwari

Meanwhile on the turf, the Indian team seems to be enjoying itself. After they are done facing questions from the Bangladesh media, the Indians have put both goalposts in use. The forwards are doing their drills at the first, while goalkeeper Akash Chikte is defending penalty corners at the second. The latter will be a major area of concern even if the coach doesn't feel it so. Harmanpreet Singh and Varun Kumar are both firing it in.

Against Bangladesh, Harmanpreet was all over the place, and was on target just once. In a tense clash, where scoring first will count for a lot, powering in the penalty corners could be the the key to ensuring the players don't face much pressure. Of late, India have put it across Pakistan in their last four encounters. However, the scorelines have a story to tell. In the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy in Kuantan, India won twice by identical 3-2 margins. But in London during the Hockey World League, India won 7-1 and 6-1. So it's clearly about momentum, making the most of half-chances, and scoring from quick counter-attacks.

"It's process driven. You play to a plan and the team executes it. Unless there is a strategy, there are no results. We plan and play," Marijne said.

At the media briefing, a journalist asked the Indian coach if emotions or skills will do the job for Pakistan. Marijne is not blunt, but he is emphatic when he says, "I always play tactically. I will have a strategy."

Irrespective of the result on Sunday, there is no denying that a gap exists between the teams. There is an element of truth when Pakistan rue not getting much exposure, with teams reluctant to travel there. Players like Irfan are playing in the Malaysian League to gain match practice when the national team doesn't have any engagements.

Yet, things can go wrong for India. Against Bangladesh, they had a 5-0 lead after two quarters, but couldn't score in the third, before putting two away in the fourth. But chinks were visible. And that could hurt them against Pakistan. "I am aware of the weaknesses and also know the strengths," says Marijne. "My focus is on the play and the team. India has to focus on itself and not the match."

Focus, focus, focus

Marijne wants the team to focus on "everything else except the fans, referees and the opposite team". But isn't it slightly surprising that there is no pressure that comes from coaching India against their greatest rivals on a hockey field? Marijne's answer is straightforward and clinical. "Pressure comes from myself. I want to win. I hate losing. And what should I do for that? I need to prepare. I have to be busy with the players. I have to focus on the play. I can't be busy with pressure," he said.

On the other hand, Pakistan chose to not train on Saturday, opting to take the day off and relax. As Irfan said, "The team watched videos and understood what is required."

On the turf, the interaction between Ramandeep Singh, SV Sunil, Gurjant Singh and Akashdeep Singh is on. It's fast paced, and the single touches make them seem like shadows on the turf. Their footwork is neat, as the striking circle becomes a maze of geometrical patterns. They are like wasps buzzing all over the circle. Against Japan and Bangladesh, there were moments when their passing touched a level where the opposition defence couldn't even spot the ball. But the inconsistency lets the team down in crucial matches.

"I have a vision for hockey. I can come close with this team. They can be brilliant, and at times against Bangladesh, they did achieve it," Marijne said.

One can raise eyebrows at the words "in the match against Bangladesh", but the coach is not offering Bangladesh as an example. He is speaking about the process, the specific match is only incidental. Ask him to predict a scoreline for the Pakistan clash, and Marijne again doesn't fall for the bait. "I cannot be busy with results. I am busy with the warm-up. Yes, the results are important and I know everybody is looking forward to the match. But it's also important to focus on the process. If that is right, the result will be good," he said.

SV Sunil is dripping with sweat. It pours off him as if someone just dunked him in a pool. It forms a puddle at his feet. Training is finally over and the coach has mercifully allowed them to return to their rooms, to prepare for Sunday's match. Sunil says he doesn't remember the matches he has played against Pakistan in the past. He also denies being under much pressure before the key clash. "Nothing at all," he says, slightly amused that one should even contemplate it. "We have played them a lot. We just follow the basics and try and do everything right."

Sunil does believe that playing hockey has changed a lot in the last 3-4 years — since the foreign coaches came in — "and now it's a whole lot tactical. "It's one-touch hockey now. We can't hold the ball beyond two touches. You have to make it hard for the opponent. They have to run to get the ball. Against Pakistan, we will get a result," he said confidently.

Those days are over when being a forward meant scoring goals. Sunil can sometimes play for long periods on the right wing, creating moves and hitting in crosses. And when finding the gaps, he would cut in and smack a few shots goalwards. "The aim should be to create as well. We have a good forward line and that is our strength," he said.

Irfan says, "The basic difference is that you (India) have a foreign coach and we have an Asian (Pakistani)."

But it's not as simplistic as that. Hockey may have changed over the years, from being a hit-and-run to a 5-3-2-1 flowing system, to being more akin to chess today, with coaches knowing and understanding how to play which player where and when. But in an India-Pakistan clash, some portion of this delectable sport is still tuned to the heart. At some point, you do see players straining at the leash, wanting to dazzle, do a hip swerve, and swoosh, the stick like a magician making the ball vanish. In fact, it will be surprising if style doesn't define an Indo-Pak hockey clash. Irrespective of whether there is a foreign or Asian coach.

Updated Date: Oct 15, 2017 12:12 PM

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