Ric Charlesworth shares an unbreakable bond with India and its hockey. Being among the first high-profile overseas names to be involved with Indian hockey about a decade-and-a-half ago as the technical director, the Australian legend had to leave the country on a bitter note in 2008.
But even then, he continues to follow Indian hockey closely and bats for the team every time it hits the turf.
The 70-year-old, who shuttles between Perth and Sydney these days, is also passionate while talking about cricket. After all, being an opening batter for Western Australia, he was a member of Sheffield Shield winning teams in 1972-73, 1976-77, 1977-78 and came close to earning the Australian Test cap during the time of World Series Cricket.
But with ‘too much cricket’ happening around the world, Charlesworth does not follow the game as closely as he would earlier. But when it comes to hockey, he is still a keen observer of the game.
In the early hours of Monday, a while after India’s T20 World Cup campaign-opening win against Pakistan in Melbourne, Charlesworth spoke to Sportstar on Indian hockey, the road ahead and also touched upon the importance of playing multiple sports in the formative years.
Have you been following the T20 World Cup?
I go walking with two Indian friends in the mornings and they follow very closely. I think I am one of those people who feel that there’s too much cricket happening these days and with so much game being played across different places, how do you follow everything? (laughs).
Young Tim David is a local boy from Perth and he played at Scotch College and his girlfriend (Stephanie Kershaw) is a hockey player, who has represented Australia in the Olympics. So yeah, I have some interest because I follow what’s going on, but I don’t watch it that closely.
Before pursuing hockey, you played a fair bit of cricket for Western Australia. How were those days?
I have played hockey for a club which was called the Cricketers Hockey Club. There were quite a lot of Test cricketers who played hockey. For instance, I played with Ross Edwards in the same team. Graham McKenzie, the famous fast bowler, and Barry Shepherd also played hockey. So, there was a tradition. I remember when I played for Western Australia and I remember one day, my photo was taken with Majid Khan, who also played hockey in Pakistan. And of course, we all know about Jonty Rhodes… there has always been a connection between the two sports.
But I feel, these days, it is really difficult for people to play more than one sport.
But don’t you think that at a time when fitness has become a major factor in every sporting discipline, it is important to encourage youngsters to pursue multiple sports in their formative years?
A lot of great players across disciplines - tennis, cricket, golf - started very early. They have been interested in various sports and there is no doubt that the variety of sports that you play and the skills that you learn when you are young eventually help you improve your hand-to-eye coordination. Having a variety of sports helps you improve your flexibility and allows you to handle new situations. But it also means that you need to put in a lot of hours. Anders Ericsson’s ‘10000 Hour Rule’ stories have some relevance because if you want to have expertise, you need to spend a lot of time building newer pathways if you want to become outstanding in sport.
Similarly, if you want to be a chess player or play the violin or learn mathematics, you better spend a lot of time doing it. You will become an expert.
You have had a long association with Indian hockey. After going through difficult times, the men’s team went on to clinch an Olympic medal in Tokyo last year. What are your thoughts on the journey so far?
When I was in India as the technical director about 14 years ago, it was Mr KPS Gill’s time and it was pretty enigmatic with ups and downs. But I felt that Indian hockey of course has the numbers, resources, the skilful players and all the ingredients that you need.
Probably, an interesting thing happened in India when India won the cricket World Cup in 1983. Hockey and cricket were big games in India, but cricket was privatised and hockey stayed in the public sector. Probably that’s the reason there was a divergence. But when I was in India 12 years ago, I remember saying that maybe it’s a 10-year project for India to become a medallist in the major tournaments and what we saw in Tokyo was a reflection of steady improvement in quality. Much of it happened due to the Hockey India League, just like the Indian Premier League in cricket.
It had a significant role to play. The hockey players got a chance to play with the overseas players and they eventually realised that even overseas players had two arms and legs like them. Many of the Indian players increased their belief. They always had the quality.
In hockey, what we have seen is a steady build and both the men’s and women’s teams are now very competitive at the elite level. I don’t find any reason why this won’t continue. Maybe, in the next 10 years, you will see them not on the podium, but at the top of the podium, in major competitions.
What were the areas that were hurting Indian hockey before Tokyo heroics? And now, how challenging is it to build on the success of the 2021 Olympics?
In the golden era of Indian hockey, you had a lot of advantages that perhaps the Europeans and we did not have. You had centralised training, you had player camps, you had semi-professionalism. When I started playing for Australia, we could not beat teams from the sub-continent.
I was around at that time. And after I stopped playing, there were players in our team, who never lost to India or Pakistan. So, there was a complete reversal. That occurred because I think India stopped learning. In the 1930s, 1940s or 1950s, India were the innovators of the game, but I think they got complacent. I won’t blame it on the synthetic pitches, because those pitches actually rewarded the skills of the Indian players.
Then, there came a period when they tried copying other people instead of being themselves. Now, they are back to the phase where they feel, ‘let’s embellish the skills that we have, back our skills and let other teams chase us.’ That’s a change in attitude and approach which I have seen developing over the last 10-15 years. That’s reflecting on the results now.
How do you see the fact that several state governments and the union government are coming forward to support hockey? What does this backing mean for the development of the game in the country?
The Indian national team doing well naturally provides a shop window for the sport. That is important. India is changing. I went there for the first time in the 1970s and it’s a different place now. The middle-class is rising, more people are wealthier and there are lots of opportunities to succeed in sport and that’s reflected by the fact that the teams are doing well. You have got lots and lots of talented players. When I was there, I think there were a couple of thousand players in centralised training, whereas in Australia, we just have about a couple of hundreds. The problem for India back then was that the quality of programmes were not as good as it is now. Building the quality of programmes has been critical. It also has got to do with mentality. Now, India have learned that they don’t need to follow other teams and they can be by themselves.
They have the skills, the power, the skills. For a while, they did not have a good goalkeeper, but now their goalkeeping has improved. They are an all-round unit now. For a while, they had good bits, but they did not have the complete package. In today’s time, if you have to achieve success in international sport, you have to have the package. It is a bit like your cricket team at the moment where bowling is the Achilles’ heel.
Is there an Achilles’ heel in the Indian hockey team, too?
In the past, they did not defend enough, sometimes the goalkeeping was letting them down. There wasn’t quite enough belief. Still this can happen and we saw that in the final of the Commonwealth Games. India is much better than that result, but things went badly. They can cascade sometimes, but it is more of a temporary issue. In football, there have been times when Germany defeated Brazil by a big margin, those can happen occasionally but they don’t reflect the real quality of the participants.
At the moment, what’s Achilles’ heel? Maybe, it’s the resilience in that sort of situation where a couple of goals can hurt. You have to endure that.
Along with the men’s team, India’s women’s hockey side has also improved its game over the last few years…
The women’s game has made a lot of progress all over the world. It’s only in 1980 that women first played in the Olympics. They have a history of World Cups longer than that, but traditionally in India, it was probably very difficult for women wanting to play the game. Very often when they got married, they stopped playing, so you never had the continuity.
With more resources in the game and more opportunity for women to be more emancipated perhaps, I think that reflects a change in society and it also reflects the increase in opportunity.
So you get young girls as well as young boys who aspire to be good. The success of the national team I think is pivotal. I’ve been involved watching the women over the last year and I’m impressed by much of what they do. They still don’t have the whole package, but their game has made a lot of progress in the last decade. And the athleticism of the girls has improved dramatically.
They always had the skill, the set plays are better than they were before, the goalkeeping is now much more solid. And when you put it all together, then they can threaten any team.
I think it’s just a matter of time before we find them at the top of the podium in a major competition - the men or the women.
But it won’t be easy because sports is becoming more and more competitive now and there’s lots of other nations that are starting to work hard and developing and improving their programmes. I think international sports are becoming much more competitive. It’s much harder to be successful in hockey than it is in cricket, where you only have a dozen countries contending.
Let’s put it this way, cricket is the Commonwealth Games, while hockey is the Olympic Games. For instance, our (Australia’s) men’s hockey team has won the gold medal in the last six Commonwealth Games. But in the last six Olympics, they’ve only won once. They’ve won bronze medals a couple of times, have been silver medalists, so it’s much, much harder.
After the medal in Tokyo, expectations are high for the Paris Olympics in 2024. Going forward, what should be India’s approach?
If I was India, I’d be worrying about the World Cup first, that’s coming along in Bhubaneswar in January next year.
It’s step-by-step and each of these tournaments gives you more confidence, more belief. When we speak about the national team, it’s never the same from one tournament to the next. It’s continuously evolving. I speak from time to time with Graham Reid, and try to understand how the team is evolving and changing. It’s a case of when you get to the tournament having all of the things that you want working together. The injuries trajectory stays as it is, but then I would expect them to be involved in the main games.
It’s so close at the top that if you get to the semifinals, then you have a chance to win a medal. And if you win a semifinal and you’re in the main game, that has to be their aim at every tournament now on.
So, you are saying that the team should take it by step-by-step?
Yeah. If you look at them, I don’t know what their ranking is... whether it’s four or five. But 10 years ago, it was 10. So, step-by-step, they have climbed the rankings over that period of time, and there were a range of different coaches and people who were involved in the programme and they all played a part.
Jose Brasa was there back when I was coaching Australia in 2010. I think he did a good job. And then there was Terry Walsh, Michael Nobbs.
There’s been a range of different people involved and of course, now Graham (Reid), who was formerly my assistant. So, I think that all of those people have played a part in developing the programme. People like Harendra Singh played a significant part, was always there behind the scenes and working with the junior teams and the junior teams have been successful.
That’s part of the stepping stone that you have to put in place if you’re going to build a solid programme. Now I think, India has depth in the programme and it’s a bit like the story in your cricket team.
I remember when I was working in Chandigarh, I had lunch one day with Greg Chappell. He was then the coach of the cricket team and I remember Chappell saying that if India gets their act together in cricket, they will have the five best teams in the world.
And, you know, a couple of years ago, India’s second eleven beat us (laughs). It’s not their second string of course, but what I’m saying is a lot of young, good players with very little experience were good enough to compete.
So, when a sport reaches that sort of depth, then you have quality. It’s about who you leave out rather than having the last one or two. You expect consistent reliable performances.
You spoke about the Indian cricket team being able to produce a huge talent pool. Is it the same with Indian hockey?
I think they’re getting close to that stage. When one or two of the notable players were left out of the Tokyo Olympics, people were saying, “Oh, how can you leave him out?” But the team won a medal. So, I think, that’s the sort of depth you’re now seeing.
Hockey India now has a president in former India captain Dilip Tirkey. How do you see the fact that former players are slowly taking up administrative roles?
It can be good or bad, it depends on the quality of the person. When I worked with New Zealand cricket, the CEO was former fast bowler Martin Snedden. In my opinion, he is the best CEO I have seen in the sporting arena. He was a capable fellow and was a lawyer by training, had intelligent skills, worked hard and loved cricket. That’s the formula.
These days everybody is a CEO from business side of things and I am not sure if they are the best people. If Dilip has the capacity to do administrative work, then he can be an outstanding president.
In India, the president is pretty hands on. In some cultures, it may be a more formal thing, but in India, the president and CEO are hands-on. I hope Elena Norman continues as the CEO because she has done a wonderful job in improving the sport. She has played an important role.
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