Indian hockey team in desperate need of course correction not window dressing with 2018 World Cup looming

While theatres in Punjab are getting ready to welcome Khido Khundi, Soorma and Harjeeta — all Punjabi films with hockey as the central theme (the last two being biopics on former India captain and Olympian Sandeep Singh and winning captain of the 2016 Junior World Cup Harjeet Singh — a different script is playing across the real landscape, almost cinematic in its twists, turns, conflicts and last-second whodunits.

There are no delicate story-lines here. But there’s the usual late entry by the producer who, after seeing the limp film play out, now probably wants a different script, director and central character, called the captain. If the past is any indicator, the director’s (coach) job is up for grabs; nothing unusual in Indian hockey. As someone said, “at least they (Hockey India) are reacting.”

Indian hockey team in desperate need of course correction not window dressing with 2018 World Cup looming

India's hockey team players sit dejected on the pitch after losing the bronze medal playoff at Gold Coast 2018. AFP

Call it knee-jerk or whatever, only the placings at the 2018 FIH World Cup or the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games will tell the tale. But gold at Jakarta could assuage doubts, heal wounds, paper over the cracks and bring some respite to the offices of the Sports Ministry, Sports Authority of India and, of course, the recipients of the state fund, Hockey India.

Window dressing is an art. And nobody does it better than Hockey India. There was ample mind space when Roelant Oltmans was asked to leave, a coach many felt had stagnated in his thinking and tactical reasoning. Two defeats in the Hockey World League Semi-Final and Oltmans had written his epitaph in Indian hockey.

And then the churn began.

Countless meetings took place as players and officials weighed in with their comments. That was the period to cool down. Take stock and move forward. There was only the Asia Cup where India anyway would have made it to the final — there was enough talent in the team to win with an interim coach, be it Harendra Singh or Jude Felix or even the polite but powerless Chairman of Selectors Harbinder Singh, a 1964 Olympic gold winner.

Meanwhile, the back door opened and Dutchman Sjoerd Marijne entered the scene. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to assume (and rightly so) that India’s High Performance Director David John opened those doors. Hindsight is a luxury, but nobody in Hockey India stopped him and asked, “Why Marijne? Why not Harendra or why not wait and weigh our options?”

Instead, the Marijne file sped through the corridors of the Sports Authority of India. A man having never coached a national men’s side was now the India coach. Marijne’s fault? not at all. Yet the early signs were encouraging. He didn’t touch anything at the Asia Cup and won. It wasn’t easy. South Korea fought well and Malaysia gave India a tough time in the final. In the euphoria, the coaching aspect was forgotten. And then the script changed.

Suddenly, every player was to be tested, checked and the thought of the 2020 Olympics dangled in the background. David pointed towards a galactic future, expanding. In October 2017, in an interview with Livemint, David said: “The target for the men’s team is to win every tournament and be ranked No 1 by 2020.”

Ambitions work well in an environment where consistency is a key factor. Suddenly, ‘young legs’ was the central theme. There is always a thin line between changes and ‘too many changes.’ India won the bronze at the Hockey World League Final. But nobody read between the lines — India played six matches, won two, drew one and lost three; the back line was creaking and the midfield cracking under pressure. Then an obscure 4-Nation tournament saw another ‘changed’ Indian side travel to New Zealand, but with India captain Manpreet Singh and some senior players, who rightfully should have been rested. The reasoning for not resting Manpreet was that the coach Marijne had a good relationship with him and he was communicating his ideas to the team. Fair enough. India did well in a competition that had New Zealand, Belgium and Japan —playing eight matches, winning five, drawing one and losing two (both losses coming against Belgium).

But at the Azlan Shah, a tournament where the team was to be tested against quality competition, a make-shift team was sent under the captaincy of Sardar Singh, who was already under pressure to keep his place in the side under the new philosophy of ‘young legs’. India played six matches, won two, lost three and drew one.

World champions Australia, Olympic champions Argentina, reigning Azlan Shah champions England were the teams India needed to face before going to the CWG. Beating Argentina, England and Australia would have given the Indian side an aura with sky high confidence before the team landed at the Gold Coast. But the main players sat in the camp drawing circles on sheets of paper and playing mock matches against each other while Australia and England played the Azlan final.

Interestingly, the failure of the Azlan Shah side wasn’t Marijne’s or David John’s. Well, they had taken a mixed side and they were experimenting. The team’s fifth place standing at the Azlan Shah was pinned on tournament captain Sardar. After coming back, David launched a broad side attack saying Sardar sometimes lacked leg speed, which remained a big problem. “He (Sardar) still holds good skills and commands the ball well, but in the last 12-18 months the game has become more faster. Sardar wasn’t matching up to it,” he said in an interview to The Hindustan Times. And then he went on to say: “It would be Sardar’s call to take a decision about his retirement. He is very sensible and very competitive. He has played hockey up to a very high level and still wants to play at the top, which is quite difficult for him now.” It was like Sardar was to play midfield, defend and also score the goals.

It was highly unusual for a High Performance Director to make such a direct comment about a player, but revealed the mindset and a possible tussle between Sardar on one side and John and Marijne on the other. Sardar was strangely quiet. But since his debut against Pakistan in 2006, Sardar has never commented against any coach or Hockey India. Not even when he was given a half-baked side to lead at the Azlan Shah, or even when he was asked to play as an inside forward at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The change in captaincy will have its effect. If it was cosmetic, it wasn’t needed. The brain trust of John and Marijne should have realised this when giving the captainship to Manpreet, or when the young captain was built up as the man to lead India at the 2020 Olympics. Admittedly, captaincy in hockey is not like cricket. But the post has relevance and does lift a key player to do better. Commonsense says that the captainship should have gone back to PR Sreejesh after he returned from his injury or at the Commonwealth Games.

But the shift now subtly puts the blame of the debacle on Manpreet. To give Manpreet his due, he was a powerhouse during the CWG. And there were moments in matches where he lifted his play to ensure India walk away with a win; especially in the 4-3 win against England. Psychologically, it will have an effect. But Manpreet will take it in his stride and move on.

The questions need to be directed to David. As former India captain and coach V Bhaskaran says, “Can Hockey India explain how they made a fitness expert, an exercise physiologist the high performance director? Look at Oltmans’ background and CV and compare it with David John!”

Bhaskaran is of the view that the coach and high performance director need to be changed. “The high performance director should not be commenting on the national team or be seen anywhere near it. It’s the job of the national coach and he seems to have handed it to David. Everyone knows the team selection is done by David,” he adds. In a PTI report right after Oltmans was asked to leave, John had admitted that he had “differences over selection process” with the ousted Oltmans.

Clearly upset with the Commonwealth Games debacle, Ashok Kumar, the man who scored the match-winner in the 1975 World Cup final, says the team should have made it to the final and believes changes should be made in the selection of the team. “Younger players could not take the pressure,” he says. “We need to bring Sardar back. It’s not about young legs or old legs. It’s about mentorship during moments of stress in the match. Players feel confident when they see someone with that kind of skill in the team.”

But on the question of Marijne's position as coach, Ashok says Hockey India should not change him. “Yes, he made mistakes but he has to learn that without experience in the team in key positions, you cannot compete in the top six. And it is too late to change now. The World Cup is only six months away.”

It’s the beginning of summer, as temperatures rise to over 40 degrees in India’s capital, New Delhi. But mist still swirls around the office of Hockey India on Mathura Road. Seven players have been interviewed by Hockey India. Confirmed reports say FIH President Dr Narinder Batra met them on a one-to-one basis. Dr Batra, the former Hockey India President, knows which way the water is flowing at the moment. The ambiguity needs to be cleared. Course correction needs to be done. Order must be restored. Nobody, not even Hockey India, would want a flop at the 2018 World Cup.

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Updated Date: Apr 28, 2018 13:32:44 IST

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