Fitness first is the mantra for a new, improved India

The one feature of the Indian team participating in the ongoing Junior World Cup here that has rival coaches concerned is its supreme fitness and quickness on the field.

The fitness of the Indians was visible in every aspect of the game against England.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

About a decade ago, as Indian hockey struggled to hold on to distant glories while turning a blind eye to desperate requests from the active players, a senior Indian team member was candid enough to admit how the world's top teams rarely bothered to match Indian skills, knowing well they could easily outplay the Indians in every other department.

“I was told by a Dutch player that half the time, they knew they would win a game even before we walked on the turf. It was all in the body — the muscles, the strength, the body language, everything. We knew we could not match them either on the run or body tackles. We only had our skills to fall back on, and it wasn't much to win titles,” he had said.

Cut to 2016 and the one feature of the Indian team participating in the ongoing Junior World Cup here that has rival coaches concerned is its supreme fitness and quickness on the field. That fitness was visible in every aspect of the game against England — the constant outrunning of opposition, the ability to effect turnovers and attack, falling back to defend and the desperate grouping to repossess the ball.

“I think against India, we need to defend really well. India is fast, very attacking, so individually the defence has to be excellent. Also, you can’t play India on their own game. So don’t be ridiculously fast, don’t get caught dribbling the ball far too much and so on. Playing tactically and passing the ball is a good way against India. And there were times when we were caught playing India in their style of hockey,” England coach Jon Bleby admitted after the game.

Fruition of a process

It was a vindication as much of the level of hard work put in by the players in raising their levels as of the process put in place for the 7-8 years. It began with Spaniard Jose Brasa, who was the first to introduce the concept of a scientific advisor to Indian hockey (Jesus Garcias Pallares) and continued with every coach that followed, including Roelant Oltmans at present. It was also a vindication of Junior coach Harendra Singh's insistence of fitness being the foundation of success all these years, when past greats would continue to put emphasis on skills instead.

“For me, fitness has been the base of everything, not just for results on field. It also increases a team and coach's self-confidence in being able to execute any plan. I know if my players are fit, they can adapt to any change, they can adjust to any tactic. I have always believed in this and I am happy to see the efforts from the team being recognised by the world now,” he smiled.

German coach Valentin Altenburg is among the increasing number of young coaches who like to experiment in an attempt to push their teams to their limits. But his tenure with German hockey — first as coach of the junior side before being promoted to the seniors ahead of the Olympics and now back to juniors — has coincided with one of the powerhouses of world hockey being slow off the starting blocks. And he admitted that the Indians were pretty quick in contrast to his own.

“It has to do with the mindset and also the fitness. I think a lot of the players, specially the more experienced ones in the senior side, still are mentally in the 35x2 mould. Germans like to take the ball, get comfortable with it and get into a rhythm before beginning to attack. It is more a rhythm thing but now we see teams being quick right from the beginning and it forces us on the backfoot early on.

“The Indians in that sense are pretty quick, they are fast to counter and can keep up the pace all through. It is not easy to beat them simply by constantly running any more, they have adjusted to the new format and here we see them adjusted to the old one too equally well, it is a very good measure of their fitness,” he said.

When someone tried to ask about the “last 10 minutes” play by the Indian team, Oltmans cut him short. “That is history. We have won more games in the last 10 minutes than we have lost in the past many years, so that is no longer an issue. We conceded two goals (against England) but they were because of unnecessary cards, not fitness,” he was curt.

Effort, determination the key

Harendra credited physical trainer Cody Tribe for the achievement. “He has worked so hard to get them to this level. He is almost possessive about their fitness and I think it shows in their efforts as well,” he said. And Armaan Qureshi, one of the new tribe of youngsters in the Indian side that is cocky enough to know they are among the best, insisted that it was an added motivation.

“We know we are good, we are fit. But when we get compliments on our fitness, it only makes it better. There is a great satisfaction in others saying they are concerned about our fitness, the confidence gets really high. We used to read about how the foreign teams beat us on fitness earlier. Only we know the kind of hard work and effort we have put in during camps to reach this level; it is insane. No one can imagine that. But somewhere we are all aware that it is essential to reach the top. And when it gets the recognition, all of it seems worth it,” he said.

Belgian coach Jeroen Baart concurred. “I know the physical trainer of India, Cody Tribe, very well, and he has done a fantastic job. From what I have seen about them in the last few meetings, they can put all the pressure they want to in there during a game, they can keep the same level of energy and intensity for all 70 minutes, which is great. They are up there with the top countries like Germany, Holland, ourselves. But the more games you play, more fatigue will come in and then we will see who prepared themselves the best. But India is definitely up there, no questions on that,” he insisted.

Senior coach Roelant Oltmans loves putting his team under pressure to test them and has been suitably impressed with the performances here. “We were 0-1 down, which people didn’t like, but I liked it because all of a sudden it becomes a demanding job. And what they did in the last 10 minutes of the first half was outstanding. We put so much pressure on them, which created so many opportunities, and the way they continued in the same vein in the second half, at least in the first 20 minutes, was heartening to see,” he said, tipping his hat to the players' ability to keep pressing ahead.

The former player, who incidentally was also part of India's maiden Junior World Cup triumph in 2001, would be glad to hear it.