When Graham Reid took over as coach of the Indian men’s hockey team, in April 2019, sceptics wondered whether he was the right choice. A series of favourable results saw Reid gaining acceptance among stakeholders of Indian hockey, especially after success at the Olympics.
The bronze medal in Tokyo ensured the continuation of Reid’s tenure but also brought a fresh set of demands, which included a good performance in the upcoming World Cup. Having had the experience of being sacked as the Australia coach after the Rio Olympics, Reid understands that one is only as good as one’s last tournament. And so, as the Indian team goes through the final stretch of its preparations for the World Cup, the coach doesn’t want to dwell on what may or may not happen on January 29, preferring to stay in the present.
Q: It’s the team’s first time in Rourkela. It’s a new ground, new turf. How’s the training going, and how is the team coming together?
A: We have been here for almost a week. The turf is beautiful; I know we are expected to say that but I really mean it, it’s actually very nice. It’s very flat and even, and the actual pitch is great to play on, game-wise, from a player’s point of view. But the stadium is absolutely out of the world. To be honest, it’s incredible. It’s not something to you see very often in hockey. And it’s all state of the art.
Training wise, we’re just going through a few last-minute things, giving the finishing touches to our preparations, practising and visualising scenarios. Things like, when we have 10 men and the other team has 10 men, what are all the different possibilities. We are going through our corners and penalty corners, various combinations, PC-A and PC-B, attack and defence. It’s quite tough because you have to train hard as well; you need to keep that level of training right up until the tournament.
I asked about the turf because it normally takes some time and a few games to adjust to it. So have the players adjusted to it?
Yeah. We played on the Bhubaneswar one earlier this year – back in October – which is brand new as well. I think they were both laid around fairly similar times and this feels similar to that one. That was fine to play on so I am not expecting issues here either. I think these days they have found a way to manage the oily surface that they used to put to protect the turf, and I think they have now worked out a way to get it off easily through cleaning it or whatever. So [the situation is] different from what it used to be 10-15 years ago.
Can you give me an idea about how the transition has been since the Tokyo Olympics? There have been changes both in support staff and players in the squad. Can you take us through these changes?
Robin Arkell (former scientific advisor) has been replaced by Mitch Pemberton. He comes from a very similar background to what Robin did when he originally joined. So he has fit in very well and we have a new physiotherapist, but again, he’s been with us now for quite a while. From the point of view of the players, we had a camp of 60 after January this year, and we have had Jugraj Singh join us back. Sukhjeet and Abhishek – they both joined then. So they have probably had close to 10-11 months with the group, including a couple of major tournaments, including the Commonwealth Games. Sukhjeet didn’t go to the Commonwealth Games, but he has been with the group and played the Pro League and the rest.
I think they bring an extra dimension to the forward line, new ideas, and they have certainly proven their worth to the group.
What about expectations and pressure both on players and yourself? Tokyo was historic. How is the team handling the pressure?
I would be lying if I didn’t say that, of course, the expectations have grown since [we won bronze in] Tokyo. But as I also always say, our expectations from ourselves are also big. We have very high expectations from ourselves, from the way we play and our performances. I think that helps in coming to terms with the pressure that comes from the public. That pressure from the public is always there, but there’s not much you can do about that. That’s what we are really trying to do – focus on what we can do. You know the old adage in sports psychology – that you can control only the controllables. You focus on the next task, then the next. [This mindset is] very valid in a situation like this.
The team recently had a not-so-great tour of Australia. Would you say that that tour helped players relieve a bit of pressure from themselves? As they got a chance to put their heads down and concentrate on the game itself, not the peripherals.
Yeah, exactly. And I think that was our objective. Going to Australia was to try and ‘desensitise’. Immediately after the final at the Commonwealth Games, I was saying that we needed to make sure we understood that the Australians are very good players, but also understand that we are also very, very good when we play and apply ourselves. But yes, I think we learned a lot – about ourselves, and about the way Australia plays. I think what you said is probably a very valid outcome of that tour.
Let’s talk about India’s group at the World Cup. It’s a slippery one, with England, Spain and Wales the other teams in the group. How do you see them, and do you think you have the toughest group out there?
It all comes out of a hat these days. You get allocated based on your ranking, but I don’t think there are any easy draws ever in Olympics and World Cups. I remember thinking in 2010, when I was with Australia, ‘Goodness me, how are we going to get through the original league games?’. And sure enough, we actually lost to England in that first round (Australia eventually won the title). So you really have to focus from the very first second that you’re on the pitch, because that’s when it begins. I don’t think there will be any team thinking ‘I’m glad we have got the easy pool’.
What about England, Spain and Wales?
We have played all three of them this year. We have played Wales only once but we’ve had all sorts of results against England and Spain. It really proves my point that you have to make sure that on our day, we are playing well, and as I’ve said before, if we are playing well, I’m confident we can be successful.
Any predictions on who the top four teams will be?
Working with Ric (Charlesworth) made me very cautious about ever trying to predict the future because if you do that you end up becoming a little bit blasé or overconfident. There’s a very fine line between having confidence and going over. I do think we can win this World Cup, but we need to be playing at our best. That is the focus for me and whatever else happens then, that’s life. For me, the most important thing is that we’re playing well.
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